May 7, 2010

How to Date Old Books: How to Read Roman Numerals

 I love old books. There's a smell to old books and the worn in, well read feel that you just can't get from a modern book. Great care used to go into making books, many were even hand bound, today machines manufacture the whole books. 
Many of us have old books but have no idea what year they are from. Many 18th and 19th century books have no publication date and leave us to research for ourselves to determine their origins. 

The first thing to look at is the front pages of the book to see if there is any publisher’s information. If there is publisher’s information, you can do some research online to find out between what years a publisher was in business. You may also be able to find lists of when they published certain titles.

Also, look to see if there is a forward in the book. Sometimes forwards include the date of publication so it is unnecessary to include it in the publishers notes. Another thing to look at is if there are any advertisements in the book. These are more common in older books than you would think. Try to research a little on any advertisements in the book as other books advertised are likely to have been published in the same year.
If nothing else, you can try to date a book by the style of binding or printing as well as any etchings or photographs included. Book printed on rag paper, were normally printed during the 1600s and 1700s. Books printed on wood pulp paper normally date after 1840.

If an illustrator created images especially for the book, try researching the illustrator as well as some of the artwork. Woodcut illustrations (usually only one) were used in books in the 18th century. Woodcut designs are normally thicker and less detailed than "etchings" which were used from the 1800s to the early 1900s.  

The date may also be included with the publisher’s information as Roman numerals. Roman numerals are one of those things that many people half-learned. Most of us learned enough to read a clock, but nothing else.  Roman numerals take a bit of work to figure out but it is well worth it to learn how just to know if your copy of Walden is from 1854 or 1910. The practice of using roman numerals was more prevalent in Britain but can still be found in a lot of old American books.

  • Roman numerals are written with the largest numerically equivalent letter to the left and the smallest numerically equivalent letters to the right in largest to smallest order.
                  Ex. MDCLX = 1660
  • Each letter’s value is added together.
                  Ex. MMC = 1,000 + 1,000 + 100 = 2,100
  • Each letter is normally only used three times in each number (this is sometimes four but it is rare.)
                  Ex. VIII
  • To make sure that each letter is only used three times, there is a “subtraction rule” which is if a numerically smaller letter is before a larger one, it is subtracted from the larger letter’s numeric value.
                  Ex. MCMXLII = 1,000 + (1,000-100) + (50-10) + 2 =1942

Some Roman Numeral Dates to try:
Answers: 1. 1854, 2. 1862, 3. 1861, 4. 1843 

I hope this helped and that many of you can now date your antique books. This is eventually leading up to a post on how to care and preserve your old books.  

*Note: The woodcut design was drawn by Paul Revere in the 1770s, the etching is from Godey's Lady's Book 1860.


  1. I love this post. I can never remember Roman Numerals.

  2. hello this is all confusing. thanks for insight. I have a book that is MCMLVI and is made out of cloth(I believe). very old

  3. i just looked up a book from 1924 with: mdccccxxiv

    4 c's is a no-no. any change that makes this book rare? or is it just common to break the rule of 3 in publishing.

    FYI - book is Southern Baroque Art - Sacheverell Sitwell (Grant Richards Ltd.)

  4. Do you know when Roman numerals stopped being used in publisher’s notes?


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