The first and most successful title in the Observer's Books series of handy pocket reference guides - British Birds by S. Vere Benson - was originally published in 1937 by Frederick Warne and Co., to be followed soon after by British Wild Flowers, by W.J. Stokoe, the major contributing writer to the series. Continuing in the same vein as Warne's already successful Wayside and Woodland series, on which the smaller-format Observer books were based and in the early days often directly lifted content from, the late 1930s and early '40s saw the publication of several more nature-based field guides: British Butterflies, Trees and Shrubs of the British Isles, British Wild Animals (all by Stokoe), Freshwater Fishes (by Laurence Wells) and British Grasses, Sedges & Rushes (written by Stokoe and Wells together).
The series first deviated from this natural history theme with Airplanes, by Joseph Lawrence, an unnumbered edition initially published in 1942 as a wartime enemy aircraft spotter's guide. Two subsequent editions were printed during World War II (in 1943 and 1945 respectively) before in 1949 the title was changed to Aircraft (and assigned number 11 in the series) in an attempt to boost sales in the USA. Warne continued to expand the series' subject-base during this post-war period, publishing a succession of field guides (British Ferns, Larger British Moths, Common British Insects & Spiders, British Birds' Eggs, Common Fungi, Mosses & Liverworts) but also adding other subjects such as earth sciences (British Geology, Weather), domestic animals (Dogs, Horses and Ponies), other spotter's guides (Ships, Automobiles, Railway Locomotives of Britain) and the arts (British Architecture, Music) to the series.
The continued rise in the series' popularity in the 1950's was in no small part due to the boom in motor car sales among the British urban middle classes and the simultaneous opening up of the British countryside as a network of new roads was built during this decade of post-war growth. Their obvious value as reference guides for day-trips to the country undoubtedly helped endear the Observer's Books to a generation of children and adults alike, and it is perhaps nostalgia for those days of innocence that has given longevity to their appeal, and helped perpetuate their collectability. It is certainly the case that many editions from this "golden age", originally purchased with just a few shillings of pocket money, are today highly sought-after.
Prior to the company being sold to Penguin in 1983, a grand total of 97 different titles were published by Warne, covering a huge diversity of subjects, ranging from Firearms to Fossils, Sewing to Silver, and culminating in 1982 with Opera by Elizabeth Forbes. A number of these 97 different titles were subject to some degree of revision and re-editing over the years, while both Automobiles and Aircraft would receive yearly updates, each producing in excess of thirty editions.
In the late 1950s and early '60s, in addition to publishing books, Warne also produced a series of 9 picture cards. Each set of 32 cards was bound together and protected by tracing paper and presented within either in a small box or a cardboard sleeve. The subject matter of each set reflected a popular title in the Observer's series, and the pictures on the cards were often borrowed from the books. For a comprehensive reference guide to these nine sets of cards, please see our new section dedicated to "Warne's Observer's Picture Cards".