I love doing deep dives into how books got to be the objects they are today. I have covered Why are books that shape? (a surprisingly complicated question) and the history of deckle edges, and in this post, I’m going to tackle a controversial book feature: the dust jacket. Are you the kind of reader who tries to keep their dust jackets pristine? Do you toss them out as soon as you buy a book? Or are you somewhere along that spectrum? Whichever you choose, there’s a good chance you have a strong opinion about it. To understand the history of dust jackets and how we got this colorful piece of paper loosely wrapped around almost every hardcover, we have to look at the history of books. Although books as objects have been around for many hundreds of years, by looking at the history of the dust jacket, we can see how young the modern book design really is.
Books as Precious Objects: Pre-1800s
What is the precursor to the modern dust jacket? Well, that depends how you define it. After all, scrolls were often wrapped in animal skins to protect them. In “The Dust-Jacket Considered,” Margit J. Smith traces the origins back to the Middle Ages, where Irish book owners would protect them on journeys in jeweled book boxes called cumdachs. At this time, of course, book were incredibly valuable objects, requiring a lot of time to produce individually. Between the 14th and 16th century in Europe, they may be wrapped in silk, leather, or velvet—both to protect them and to add even more decoration to these ornate objects.
Above: “Annunciation,” a Spanish illuminated manuscript from 1460 (source).
Another version of this were “girdle books,” which were usually associated with religious texts. These books had an elongated leather cover that gathered at the top, allowing it hang off the owner’s belt.
During the late 1400s, there were a handful of instances where protective paper was wrapped around books, but this process wouldn’t catch on for more than 300 years. Until then, books were still very expensive to make and were only owned by the wealthy. Each one would be handled individually with care. After all, most people couldn’t even read. The nature of books as objects wouldn’t change much for 300 years.
Books as Luxury Good: 1800s
The 1800s brought the invention of the dust jacket. Books were beginning to be able to be produced in larger numbers, and educational reform in England meant there was a much higher demand for them. Still, books at the store didn’t look much like they do now. Into the 1820s, book were sold unbound, as just the sheets of paper or bound in a temporary way. The expectation was that the customer would then take it to be bound in a way that matched the other books in his collection (Overall). These may have a blank page at the front to offer some protection, or they may have disposable boards. The next earliest ancestor to the modern dust jacket was a protective sheath: a small box open at the top and bottom, so the book could be slid out to examine (Koczela). These are similar to slipcases, but were meant to be temporary until the book was bound.
The dust jacket emerged as a way to protect the gilt covers of leatherbound books. Instead of being rebound to match the owner’s libraries, these books came with their own ornate binding. In order to keep the gold embossing intact—and protect the books from dust—booksellers or the printers would wrap the books in paper. These dust wrappers, as they were originally called, weren’t proper dust jackets. They were plain pieces of paper that were sealed shut, and they were meant to only protect the book while it was at the store.
By the 1830s, bookbinders has perfected the cloth cover. In the decades before, different types of cloth and glue had been experimented with as a cheaper way to print books. These earlier versions often had covers and even spine information pasted on. With this new reliable cloth binding, though, the covers could be printed directly onto the cloth (Novin). These books were also protected with dust wrappers.
We have almost no record of these early dust wrappers and jackets, because they were made to be disposable. Keeping a book with its wrapper would be like storing clothes in the box they came in (Powers). Some of the remaining wrappers we do have, though, were remade by their owners into dust jackets, much like how until recently children wrapped their textbooks in protective paper.
The earliest true dust jacket, with text printed on it, was for the book Friendship’s Offering in 1829. This was during a brief period where “gift books” were printed bound in silk. Obviously, this made the books incredible delicate. The dust jacket was one that sealed—it even had evidence of the wax that held it closed—but it is printed with advertisements for other books.
Above: Friendship’s Offering dust jacket. Like most gift books or annuals, it was printed the year before its date. Image courtesy of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, G. Pamph. 2920, 2921, fol. 19r.
Before this, the earliest dust jacket was thought to be from 1832 for The Keepsake. It was discovered in 1934, brought to the Bodleian Library, and then was lost in the 1950s and never found again. This proves how delicate and rare these dust jackets are: it may even have been accidentally recycled. In the mid 2000s, though, the same library unearthed the even earlier dust jacket for Friendship’s Offering. Oddly, it means their collection now contains the book but not the jacket of The Keepsake and the jacket but not the book of Friendship’s Offering. Another dust jacket that remains missing is from the 1870 Charles Dickens title The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was sold at auction in 1941, but has not been located since. If it still exists, it will likely by the most valuable 19th century dust jacket discovery. I highly recommend reading the whole disappearing dust jacket scandal in “The Earliest Dust Jackets—Lost and Found” by Mark R. Godburn.
From the 1850s into the 1890s, many books were protected with a simple transparent wrapping made of glassine so that the customer could see the book’s cover before purchasing (Snyman). Alternately, paper covers would include cut out “windows” to see the cover illustration and title on the spine. By the 1870s, dust jackets—or at least wrappers—were common, though they were often left blank. In 1876, Lewis Carroll wrote a letter entreating his publisher to print the title of The Hunting of the Snark on the spine of the wrapper so that the book would remain in “cleaner and more saleable condition.” He also requested this to be done to his earlier titles, “even those on hand which are already wrapped in plain paper” (Koczela). Clearly, the role of dust jackets in the 1870s was still in flux.
Most dust jackets at the time were printed with ads for other books on the back, but they sometimes included ads for household goods, like soap (Snyman). The last sealed wrapper cover that we have found is from 1884 for the title In Search of Gold: The Story of a Liberal Life by “Don Juan,” but even that came with instructions to “Cut open at this line and use wrapper for outside cover” (Godburn).
By the 1890s, flap-style dust jackets had become common—it’s hard to say exactly when this happened, because it is so difficult to find examples from this time period, but they were definitely established by this date. It was also common to print on these dust jackets, but they usually didn’t contain illustrations, at least not any comparable to cover designs today (Snyman). They may have included the title, author, and a simple decorative design, but they weren’t works of art. At least, they weren’t in England. While English covers stayed plain, German publishers in the late 1800s were using well-known cartoonists and artists to illustrate their covers (Snyman).
Books as Everyday Objects: The 1900s
In the early 1900s, the industrial revolution had brought books to the masses. Instead of being carefully handled by an elite few, books could now be sold piled in an open wagon, stacked in suitcases, or displayed outdoors (Smith). This new reality for selling books made dust jackets a necessity. In these early days, though, pictorial jackets or covers were still rare and were usually only used for children’s book or other specialty topics (Powers).
These jackets were utilitarian; not a lot of time was put into producing or designing them. If there was an image on the front, it was a random decoration or an illustration pulled from inside the book (Salisbury). This was beginning to change in the 1910s, though: increased competition encouraged publishers to sell books any way they could—including giving it nicer, more eye-catching packaging (Powers). This was also when we started seeing the inclusion of a publisher’s “blurb” (Victoria and Albert Museum). Unfortunately, although there was increased interest in illustrated jackets, the technology at the time didn’t allow for reproducing artwork using many colors, so the artwork was limited (Powers).
By the 1920s, the (American and European) market was saturated with bright, graphic advertising. Consumers were now used to being sold branded images, not generic products (Powers). There were also more artists willing to pursue commercial art, at least in part. This is when the book cover and jacket shifted to become a mini poster advertising the book, instead of a protective cover for the contents. This is also when prices moved from the front or spine or the jacket to the inside flap. This way, a customer could clip the price and gift the book with the jacket still attached.
Meanwhile, in France and Italy, books were still being sold in plain wrappers with the expectation they would be given a bespoke binding (Powers). France favored yellow wrapping, especially for “decadent” novels, until the 1930s (Salisbury). This would be imitated in the cover (and title) of The Yellow Book, a quarterly that was already scandalous for even alluding to French decadent novels. European books at the time were also more likely to reflect a brand, while American titles were advertised and designed individually (Salisbury).
By the 1930s and ’40s, these newly designed dust jackets were controversial. No longer simple paper to be automatically discarded, not everyone was happy with this addition to book design. Dust jackets had become brighter and louder, while the boards themselves became more simple. Check out these amazing curmudgeonly rants:
The wretched thing started as a piece of plain paper, wrapped round the book to protect it during its sojourn in the bookseller’s shop; but it has become this important, elaborate, not to say costly and embarrassing affair, that we know today, and of which we sometimes deplore the very existence. How much better might this mint of money that is emptied on these ephemeral wrappers—little works of art though many of them may be—be spent on improving the quality of the materials that are used in the making of the book itself!
—Richard de la Mare, Dent Memorial Lecture, 1936
To stand by any book-stall or to enter any book-shop is to witness a terrific scene of Internecine warfare between the Innumerable latest volumes, almost all of them violently vying with one another for one’s attention, fiercely striving to outdo the rest in crudity of design and of colour. It is rather like visiting the parrot-house in the Zoological Gardens, save that there one can at least stop one’s ears with one’s fingers, whereas here one merely wants to shut one’s eyes.
—Sir Max Beerbohm, The Observer, 1949
To be fair to Richard de la Mare, dust jackets at the time were ridiculously costly to produce. It cost the publisher at least eight pence to produce a book jacket (the equivalent of about $6.50 USD today). Publishers were debating about whether it was worth putting so much time and money into a jacket that still expected to be thrown away after purchase—though arguably by that time, they’d already done the work of advertising the book successfully (Snyman).
The 1940s brought wartime austerity, which made dust jacket design feel even more frivolous. They didn’t disappear, though. Instead, the designs were made simpler and often relied on typography (Henshaw). In fact, strangely, the 1930s and ’40s had a brief trend of paperbacks being published with dust jackets (Koczela). The first Penguin paperbacks came with their own.
In the 1950s, book cover and dust jacket design was steadily improving. The technology was available for more elaborate and colorful covers. They were still considered disposable, though, and despite the time and artistry that went into them, the expectation was that the dust jacket would not be kept long after purchase (VAM). This technology continued to improve, and by the ’60s and ’70s, more durable laminated covers were possible (Powers). The art style of these designs continued to change over the decades, but that’s beyond the scope of this article.
Books as Collectibles: Dust Jackets Today
Almost 200 years after the first dust jackets, what is our relationship with them today? Well, it’s complicated. Some book lovers treat them the same way they did in the beginning: as something to be tossed out before they make their way to the shelf. For others, though, the roles have been reversed. It’s common now for readers to remove the jacket before reading to keep it pristine, even if the book cover itself gets stained. Instead of protecting the book, jackets seem to have usurped them as the most aesthetically important part of a book. They continue to be good advertising for their books, however. A year-long library study in South Carolina found that “circulation of jacketed books was more than three times that of non-jacketed books” (Smith).
The big change in attitudes towards dust jackets today is how collectible they are. A rare book will sell for drastically different prices depending on whether they come with a dust jacket and the condition of the jacket. A copy of a first edition of The Great Gatsby will reportedly sell for around $10,000 sans jacket. With a dust jacket, however, it can go for up to $150,000, depending on condition (Fine Books).
Early dust jackets are rare because they were meant to be disposed of. Paradoxically, this makes them valuable and collectible today. So much so that there are companies devoted to making facsimile dust jackets: reproductions of the original jacket meant to be indistinguishable. This can make a book more appealing to the average reader, and can be clearly stated in the listing of the book, or it can be an attempt to raise the price of a book by implying or outright stating that it’s a rarer edition than it is.
I hope that you found some of these factoids interesting! I love seeing how books have evolved as objects over time. I also highly recommend that you check out some books about the history of dust jackets to see some of the beautiful book covers throughout time, and how that art reflected its time period.
This is far from a complete history of dust jackets: I don’t have access to every book on the topic, and most of what I could find concentrated on the U.S. and England. If you would like to find out more, though, here are some of the sources I found helpful.
- “The Great Gatsby Dust Jacket: The Most Valuable Piece of Paper in Modern Literature” by Fine Books & Collections
- “The Earliest Dust Jackets—Lost and Found” by Mark R. Godburn
- The Book by Keith Houston
- “A Brief History of the Dust Jacket” by Andrea Koczela
- “Design for Book Covers and Dust Jackets” by Guity Novin
- “Coloured Cloth Bindings Highlights from the Monash University Rare Books Collection” by Richard Overall
- Front Cover: Great Book Jacket and Cover Design by Alan Powers
- The Illustrated Dust Jacket: 1920-1970 by Martin Salisbury
- “The Dust-Jacket Considered” by Margit J. Smith
- “The History of the Book Jacket in the 19th and Early 20th Century” by Magdaleen Snyman
- “The History of the Dust Jacket” by Victoria and Albert Museum