The Museum Collection

The Conchologist's First Book

ID #: 546
Creator: Edgar Allan Poe
Date: 1839
Format: Book, 156 pages and 12 color plates
Dimensions: 7.5" x 4.75"
Source: Museum Purchase
Collection: Poe Foundation, Inc.
Publisher: Haswell, Barrington, and Haswell
Place of Publication: Philadelphia
Publish Date: 1839


This is the first edition of the book that was to become Poe's best seller during his lifetime. It was printed in three editions in six years.

At the request of a conchologist, whose own book on shells was too expensive to sell at his shell collecting lectures, Poe prepared a less expensive version of the existing book. Poe contributed a new introductory essay and rearranged the plates of the existing book and was probably paid $50 for his efforts. Poe's name was added to the cover and the title page because the publisher of the original book would not allow the original author to release a cheaper copy of his own book that might undercut the sales of the more expensive version. Although he had rewritten the book at the request of the original author, Poe later faced accusations of plagiarism. On the third edition, published in 1845, Poe's name was removed from the cover and title page.

This book reminds us that, in order to make a living as a writer in America in the 1830s and 1840s, Poe needed to find several sources of income, including writing book reviews, editing magazines, and lecturing. The Conchologist's First Book can be seen as an example of Poe finding ways earn a living as a writer.

Perhaps Poe's most important contribution to this piece was his arrangement of the color plates in order from the simplest organisms to the most complex. This was a reversal of the customary arrangment in biology textbooks of the time. Making this even more unusual, the book was published before Charles Darwain published his own theories about the evolution of species from simple lifeforms to more complex organisms. Other evidence of Poe's revolutionary scientific thinking can be found in his last book Eureka, which contains a book-length essay about the universe.

The first edition appeared in April 1839. The Poe Museum purchased the copy in 1930 for $10.