The Evolution of Dust Jackets

Dust jackets are now common on bookshelves, glowing with attractive colours and captivating taglines, screaming for customers’ attention. Readers display them proudly on their personal shelves and even take “shelfies” to later post on Instagram and other social media platforms. But dust jackets were not always designed to stand out and give much information to its readers. This essay will explore the history of the dust jacket as it became more popular over the years. But first, it is important to understand how and why dust jackets were created.

Texts and Bastards
Prior to the 1820s, books were unbound sheets with disposable board covers. Customers would buy text-blocks and commission bindings that would match other titles in their libraries[1]. Bookshops were filled with those unbound text-blocks stacked in labelled containers that were scattered across the walls of the store. It is only to help booksellers that printers began printing titles of books on a blank outside page called the bastard title or the half-title page[2]. All the while, book spines faced inwards on the shelves so booksellers had to handwrite book titles on the fore-edge of the text-blocks to make the information accessible to customers. As the use of bastard titles spread, however, book owners began to use this reference to organize their libraries. They “cut out the bastard title and pasted it inside the cover, folding it over the fore-edge and thus labelling their book[3].” It is only by the mid-18th century that people reorganized their libraries with the spines facing out, after cutting out “the bastard title and [pasting] it on the spine of their books. And by the nineteenth century, bookbinders printed the title directly on the spine of the book to ease the process[4], creating the controversy of whether the bastard title should be kept. In the 20th century, however, publishers removed the bastard title completely from paperbacks and then hardcovers to reduce the cost of printing[5].

An Early Start
By then, although the term was only invented in 1926[6], dust jackets already existed. They first came to exist in the 1820s[7] and according to G. Thomas Tanselle, it was sheaths that “gave prominence to the idea of a detachable publisher’s covering[8].” Some publishers started to wrap bound books in paper, printing just enough text to identify the title. The earliest English language dust jacket was found by Michael Turner, a librarian at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, while he was sorting through ephemera. The jacket belonged to a silk-covered gift book, Friendship’s Offering (1829), and had never been catalogued individually as a historical part of the book. Unlike today, most jackets were used by booksellers to “enfold the book completely, like a parcel[9],” as a way to protect the binding. Therefore, they were regarded as irrelevant; some people would discard them like wrapping paper at Christmas, and most jackets would be destroyed in the process of opening the book itself[10]. In the case of Friendship’s Offering, although the jacket had been added for the mere protection of the vulnerable silk bounding, it survived because of its book genre*. Jackets of annuals and gift books tended to be more ornate[11], some having flaps and thus remaining on the book even when it was opened, providing protection as the book was read[12]. The second earliest-known example of a dust jacket had also been meant to protect a gift book: The Keepsake (1833)[13]. As a result, it is fair to assume that dust jackets belonging to gift books were greater in quality and thus more durable.

By the 1870s, dust jackets were more common, though most still had no purpose aside from protecting the precious binding. It is Lewis Carroll who revolutionized the practice[14]; he transformed jackets into a marketing tool. With the publication of The Hunting of Snark in 1876, Carroll wrote to his publisher, Macmillian, asking for the title to be printed on the “paper wrapper”, and for the letters to be angled “so as to be easily read as the book stands upright,” in order for the jacket to be “kept in cleaner and more saleable condition.” He also required for the back jacket to advertise his other children’s books[15], which became a common practice, though most publishers used the flaps instead of the back jacket. Advertisements normally featured other books but some publishers went as far as to use them for other products such as audiphones for the deaf, for example[16].

Colourful Experiments 
This process opened doors for publishers to experiment with coloured materials and more durable fabrics, as they realized that dust jackets could catch reader’s attention if designed accordingly[17]. By the 1880s, 90% of books was granted one[18]. The most common jacket design in the 1890s “had printing on the spine and (often) on the front, with all the other surfaces blank. The paper was usually cream, gray, or tan, with printing in black or brown (or sometimes another color).” The spine displayed the title as well as the name of both author and publisher, and the front revealed the title and the author’s name[19]. But even then, the small amount of decorations and illustrations that appeared on dust jackets were mere repetitions from the bindings; no one was commissioned to design them differently because they were only meant to “draw attention to the book and suggest something of the splendor that often lay beneath the jacket[20].”

There were, however, two other kinds of detachable coverings common in the 1890s: cloth jackets and boxes[21]. Cloth jackets were usually made of cloth backed with stiff paper, but sometimes, a thin layer of cloth sufficed. They were primarily used for fancy gift editions that contained illustrations and had elaborate bindings. And when books required “additional protection and greater luxuriousness,” publishers would wrap them in a box. There were boxes with and without lids, but the latter format, the one with an open side revealing the spines, became the dominant style in the 20th century[22].

Truth is Truth
According to Thomas Tanselle, however, the true starting point of the dust jacket was when people started to see it as an object of graphic design, which “coincided with the definition of the field of graphic design as a profession and with the dominance of modernism as an artistic program[23].” In the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century, blurbs, synopses, photographs and biographies of authors also made their apparition. After World War One, “more artists began accepting corporate work and publishers employed them to design attractive dust jackets[24],” and as the century progressed, jackets became the piece of art while bindings simplified. Dust jackets grew in popularity and intricacy until finally, in the 1940s, even paperbacks wore one[25].

Also in the mid-20th century, a publisher decided that one dust jacket was not “substantial enough to withstand the amount of handling to which the book [was] exposed,[26]” and so a book in 1942 was published with two jackets. Another one in 1958 had a similar experience. A note was found on the outer jacket that included the following comment: “If this jacket (the author painted it) is too strong for you, take it off. There’s a conservative jacket for conservative people underneath.[27]

Dealing With Commandments
Nowadays, these historical dust jackets have a clear market as they are important, rare objects for historians and collectors. Books wearing their original jackets are sold for twice the price of books without them, if not more[28]. Therefore, book dealers tend to add, restore, or interchange dust jackets before selling them[29]. The practice is called remboîtage. In 2004, a report of a subcommittee of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association criticized the practice and urged dealers to identify switched jackets when possible. Nicolas Barker created the Ten Commandments regarding jackets, covering both exchanging and touching them up, and according to Thomas Tanselle, these commandments should be carefully memorized by dealers and collectors. The two main ones are the first and the fourth, stating, “Thou shalt not have any jacket but the original jacket” and “Remember that thou keep absolute the integrity of jacket and book.[30]” Whether or not book dealers and collectors respect these commandments is not certain. One could wonder, however, whether or not today’s dust jackets will be seen as worthy collectibles in a few hundred years. With the hundreds of thousands of publications being published every year, book covers might have lost their value by then.

[1] Koczela, Andrea. “A Brief History of the Dust Jacket.” A Brief History of the Dust Jacket. February 1, 2015. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/a-brief-history-of-the-dust-jacket.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Koczela, Andrea. “A History of the Bastard Title.” A History of the Bastard Title. November 6, 2013. Accessed February 23, 2017. https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/history-of-the-bastard-title.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Merriam-Webster dictionary. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dust%20jacket.
[7] Koczela, Andrea. “A Brief History of the Dust Jacket.” A Brief History of the Dust Jacket. February 1, 2015. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/a-brief-history-of-the-dust-jacket.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Pauli, Michelle. “Earliest-known book jacket discovered in Bodleian Library.” The Guardian. April 24, 2009. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/apr/24/earliest-dust-jacket-library.
[10] Koczela, Andrea. “A Brief History of the Dust Jacket.” A Brief History of the Dust Jacket. February 1, 2015. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/a-brief-history-of-the-dust-jacket.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Susina, Jan. Place of Lewis Carroll in Children’s Literature. Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2013. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://books.google.ca/books?id=OQXK9CU4KIUC&pg=PT23&lpg=PT23&dq=cleaner and more saleable condition lewis carroll&source=bl&ots=hsg6Ehv8s4&sig=iqpNPMvykXuTaQ1gQpNzZ-VHHT0&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwih-NfO0qbSAhUW8GMKHeNLBAQQ6AEIGjAA#v=onepage&q=cleaner%20and%20more%20saleable%20condition%20lewis%20carroll&f=false.
[16] Tanselle, George Thomas. Book-jackets: their history, forms, and use. 2007/2008 ed. Vol. 58. P.218. Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25735202?seq=1&cid=pdf-reference#references_tab_contents.
[17] Pauli, Michelle. “Earliest-known book jacket discovered in Bodleian Library.” The Guardian. April 24, 2009. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/apr/24/earliest-dust-jacket-library.
[18] Tanselle, George Thomas. Book-jackets: their history, forms, and use. 2003/2004 ed. Vol. 56. P.61. Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2017. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40372193.
[19] Tanselle, George Thomas. Book-jackets: their history, forms, and use. 2007/2008 ed. Vol. 58. P.216. Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25735202?seq=1&cid=pdf-reference#references_tab_contents.
[20] Ibid. p.218
[21] Ibid. p.219
[22] Ibid.
[23] Tanselle, George Thomas. Book-jackets: their history, forms, and use. 2003/2004 ed. Vol. 56. P.47. Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2017. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40372193.
[24] Koczela, Andrea. “A Brief History of the Dust Jacket.” A Brief History of the Dust Jacket. February 1, 2015. Accessed February 22, 2017. https://blog.bookstellyouwhy.com/a-brief-history-of-the-dust-jacket.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Tanselle, George Thomas. Book-jackets: their history, forms, and use. 2003/2004 ed. Vol. 56. P.75. Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2017. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40372193.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Tanselle, George Thomas. Book-jackets: their history, forms, and use. 2007/2008 ed. Vol. 58. P.213. Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2012. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25735202?seq=1&cid=pdf-reference#references_tab_contents.
[29] Ibid. p.211
[30] Ibid. p.212

One Reply to “The Evolution of Dust Jackets”

  1. I encourage you and Jessica to work together on the research phase of this project, since you’re likely to benefit from many of the same sources. I know for a fact there’s at least one detailed publishing history of this book available that will answer many of your questions. More challenging, and thus more intriguing, is the question of custom covers — or at least, I don’t know anything about it so I’m intrigued. How widespread was the practice? Who actually made them?

    I’m glad to see you thinking broadly about your final project. I wonder if your interest in custom covers might inspire you?

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