There was a time when "first edition" had a straight-ahead unambiguous meaning. John Carter, in his ABC for Book Collectors, says, "Very, very roughly speaking, this means the first appearance of the work in question, independently, between its own covers." When I first started collecting children's books (back in the mid-eighties) and selling them (in the early nineties), all reputable dealers assigned the term to mean the same: the very first printing of the book.
Recently, the use of "first edition" has been watered down to include virtually any printing of a particular title. On many auction sites (and I'm talkin' about you, Ebay) one sees things such as "first edition, nineteenth printing" and "probable first edition, seemingly very early printing" and so on. Here at Wonderland Books (and at many other respected dealers), we don't engage in such word play. When we say "first edition" we mean "first edition, first printing," the original appearance of the work in question.
There's a good reason for that, particularly for those interested in children's literature and especially for collectors of illustrated books. The quality of the illustration in the very first printing of picture books for children is often overseen by the artist him or herself and will not see the light of day until it passes muster. As a book is reprinted, the task of plate alignment and color fidelity becomes more routine, printing plates (especially for books published in the pre-digital age) tend to wear down, and there can be very noticeable changes (and not for the better!) in print quality. Take a look, for instance, in the difference in the title page of the D'Aulaires' Caldecott-winning 1939 Abraham Lincoln . The first image is from the first edition and the second image is from an early reprint:
See what I mean?
There are instances, of course, in which later editions or printings are still collectible. An author or illustrator's signature (or original illustration) often outweighs a first edition designation as does a first illustrated edition, an association copy and so on. But as a general rule of thumb, real value lies in true first edition copies and that's why they constitute the vast, vast majority of our offerings.
Determining what makes a true first edition changes from publisher to publisher and era to era and that's the stuff of another blog entry, but rest assured that we've done the dirty work for you and that books designated as "first edition" at the Wonderland 100 site are true firsts.