First Edition Identification Points
All of the following points must be present to ensure a true first edition / first printing.
- The copyright page states “FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1937” at the top with no mention of subsequent impressions
- Front flap of dust jacket has the price “7s. 6d” at the bottom right
- Rear flap of dust jacket has the name “Dodgson” misspelled as “Dodgeson” with the extraneous “e” inked out by hand
- Dust jacket features an illustration of the mountains and forests of middle-earth designed by Tolkien in blue, black, green, and white
- End papers have maps printed in black and red
- The 10 included illustrations are in black and white
- Top edge stained green
Later Editions’ Identification Points
The applicable printing numbers are listed in brackets when known.
- The copyright page lists additional editions/impressions with their respective years after “FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1937”. For example, the fourth printing looks like this:
- FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1937
SECOND IMPRESSION 1937
- Rear flap of dust jacket has correct “Dodgson” spelling [2+]
- The second printing converted a line drawing to a colored frontispiece and added three additional colored illustrations for 13 total illustrations 
- The third and fourth printings include a note on the copyright page: “THIS BOOK IS PRODUCED IN COMPLETE CONFORMITY WITH THE AUTHORIZED ECONOMY STANDARDS” under a stamp of a lion sitting atop an open book that reads “BOOK PRODUCTION WAR ECONOMY STANDARD” [3-4]
- The third and fourth printings were slightly physically smaller and removed the three colored illustrations (but kept the frontispiece) in accordance with the war economy standard [3-4]
- The fifth impression onwards is also known as the second edition because it included substantial changes to the text to bring the narrative of The Hobbit more in line with the Lord of the Rings series, especially in Chapter 5 
- Front flap of dust jacket includes press blurbs, mentions the impression number, and has a higher price than 7s. 6d [5+]
- Back flap of dust jacket mentions The Lord of the Rings [6+]
- The 16th printing is also known as the third edition due to further revisions in the text to (once again) conform more closely with The Lord of the Rings series [16+]
Book Club Editions’ Identification Points
- Dust jacket is orange and white, with the cover featuring a dandified cartoon of a hobbit
- Both flaps, the spine, and especially the back cover mention that this is a Children’s Book Club edition/li>
- Boards are yellow, gilt-stamped cloth
- Title page lists “CHILDREN’S BOOK CLUB” instead of George Allen & Unwin Ltd
- The sheets were actually from the third printing and so are identical to that version, except for the omission of the maps and frontispiece
J. R. R. Tolkien (born John Ronald Reuel Tolkien) started writing his first major work, The Hobbit, while working at Oxford in 1930. He recalled years later that he was at marking papers when he saw a blank sheet and was inspired to write the words, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He worked on the story in between teaching classes and shared versions of it with his children as it developed. By the end of 1932 a full manuscript was finished which Tolkien would go on to share with author C. S. Lewis as well as his former student Elaine Griffiths. In mid-1936 Griffiths was supposed to deliver a revision of the translation of Beowulf to Susan Dagnall, a woman working at George Allen & Unwin Ltd. Griffiths’ work was not ready so she suggested Dagnall borrow the typescript for The Hobbit from Tolkien. Dagnall loved the work and encouraged Tolkien to finish it, and then recommended it for publication. Stanley Unwin read the work and then gave it to his 12-year old son Rayner (who would later serve as chairman for the firm) to review; he was paid one shilling for this task. Rayner approved of the work and the firm agreed to publish it. Allen and Unwin did not plan on including illustrations in the novel, but the author himself submitted drawings which the publishers felt they could not omit. They also requested he design the dust jacket, which originally
The first edition of The Hobbit was 310 pages and it was published on September 21st, 1937 for 7s. 6d in a run of 1,500 copies. It was well-received and the book was sold out by December so a second printing was quickly called for. The second printing converted four of the illustrations to color and had a larger print run of 2,300 copies that became available in January 1938. 423 of these unbound copies were destroyed in a fire at the bindery Key & Whiting during the bombing of London in 1940. Early in 1938 Houghton Mifflin published the first American edition of The Hobbit which included the colored illustrations and used the frontispiece image of “Hobbiton Across the Water” as the cover image. They printed a second run of 5,000 copies on March 1st, 1938. Because of wartime economy standards, Unwin & Allen’s third printing in 1942 used cheaper materials, was slightly smaller, and removed the colored illustrations (except the frontispiece). 4,500 copies were printed of this version, 3,000 of which were sold unbound to the publisher Foyle’s to be issued under their Children’s Book Club imprint. This version featured a dandified cartoon hobbit on the cover which Tolkien despised; he is quoted saying “surely the paper wasted on that hideous dust-cover could have been better used.” Unwin & Allen printed a fourth run of 4,000 copies in 1946 that were not bound and published until late in 1947. Like the third printing, these copies conformed to the Wartime Economy Standard.
By this point J. R. R. Tolkien was planning and writing a sequel to The Hobbit that would become the Lord of the Rings series. The story built upon the world described in The Hobbit but changed the nature of certain characters and objects. With this in mind, Tolkien sent a revised version of Chapter 5: Riddles in the Dark (which featured Gollum losing the eponymous ring to Bilbo) to Unwin as an example of the kind of changes that needed to be made to conform the old book with the new series. He heard nothing back from his publishers, and so was surprised to find his sample text in the galley proofs for the fifth impression (also known as the Second Edition) which was published in 1951. The fact that two versions of the section exist is explained in the series itself; the first version is said to be a lie that Bilbo made up while the revised version is the true account. At this time Houghton Mifflin started using the English sheets for their edition, changing only the title pages and end papers before binding them in America. There were 3,500 copies of the fifth printing (or Second Edition); 2,500 of these were published by Allen & Unwin with the remaining 1,000 sent to America for Houghton Mifflin. This system would stay in place for the next nine printings.
In 1966, Penguin Books printed 35,000 copies of the paperback edition of The Hobbit under their Puffin Books imprint. They completely reset the text and made certain editorial changes (e.g. “elvish” became “elfish”) that Tolkien strongly objected to. Due in part to the release of an unauthorized version of The Lord of the Rings series in America, Houghton Mifflin and Ballantine asked Tolkien to refresh the text of The Hobbit to renew the US copyright. He took this opportunity to make a few more changes to the text to further conform it with his followup series, and this version became the Third Edition (also the 16th printing); it was also released in 1966.