Dust Jackets: A Series

by Craig Stark

19 March 2012

Part II: Early History

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By Craig Stark

Things usually arise when a need for them arises, and this is as true of dust jackets as anything else. The need for dust jackets arose with the introduction of permanent but less durable cloth bindings in 1820, and their first appearance, so far as we know, occurred a few years later. Prior to this publishers issued books primarily as unbound sheets or in temporary protective boards, and it was left to the bookseller or buyer to see to a permanent (usually leather) binding.

Plain cloth bindings soon evolved into more decorative bindings, and some publishers saw even more clearly a need for protecting books, at least until they reached a buyer's hands. Early on this often took the form of blank jackets, sometimes with small windows cut on the spines or font panels to reveal titles, and in fact blank jackets were common throughout the 19th century.

But more enterprising publishers soon saw the advantage of printing authors' names and titles on dust jackets, and from that it was a short leap to seeing a potential for advertising. The example of the earliest known dust jacket presented in Part I - Keepsake - in fact, lists three additional Longman titles on the back.

Another common dust jacket format was a reproduction of the title page:

Another was a reproduction of the binding (dust jacket on left):

But not all protective covers took the form of what we now know as the detachable, flapped dust jacket. Some books were issued in boxes, some in sheaths or slipcases and some were wrapped entirely. Though all types of protective covers were used throughout much of the 19th century, the flapped dust jacket became the format of choice for most publishers by the end the century, most likely because they provided sustained protection while a book was being handled, read, etc., whereas other protective covers needed to be removed.

Essential Chronology

Sealed wrappings, sheaths and slipcases (also printed boxes) predominated in the early 1800's. There are several examples of detachable, flapped dust jackets pre-dating the 1860's, the first in 1832 as already noted, but dust jacket production began in earnest during this decade.

By the late 1870's almost all major publishers were regularly issuing dust jackets. Most of these were relatively plain, often with no more than author/title/publisher printed on spine and/or front panels. Common colors included light blue, gray and tan. Occasionally, decorative elements were present, but these were usually derived from elements on or inside the books themselves.

By the late 1880's printing on back panels became more common, usually taking the form of lists of additional publications, as did the use of decorative elements.

By the late 1890's printing on flaps was common. Blurbs became more common - and very common by the early 1900's.

By the 1920's most bindings were plainer, dust jackets considerably more decorative. The dust jacket's purpose had shifted decidedly. Advertising and graphic design were now the primary emphasis, and collectors took considerable interest in them for the first time, though bibliographers were slow to follow.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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