Dust jackets were first used during the 19th century. During this period books were expensive items bound in fine materials such as leather or silk and displayed as desirable objects. Such examples of craftsmanship needed protection during their journey from the bookseller or binder to the library, and so the dust jacket came about. Initially these were just plain paper wrappers and once a book had been unwrapped its dust jacket was thrown away.
Decorative dust jackets
Decoration on the outside of books was initially confined to the designs on their bindings. The late 19th century saw an increased use of these pictorial bindings and some dust jackets were produced with 'windows' in them through which the design on the binding underneath could be seen. Gradually, these binding designs started to be replicated on the dust jackets that protected them and the decorative dust jacket was born.
The oldest dust jackets held in the British Library Dust Jacket Collection date from 1919. Because of their ephemeral nature, there are few surviving examples of early dust jackets prior to the 1890s. The earliest existing example of a decorative dust jacket is thought to be a wrapper which was recently rediscovered in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The wrapper is for a silk-bound gift book called Friendship's Offering and is white with the title in black, enclosed by a decorative border. The wrapper was designed to enclose the book completely, traces of the sealing wax used to hold it in place can still be seen on the paper. Prior to this discovery, the earliest known example of a dust jacket was a 'pale buff paper printed in red' that was created in 1833 by the publisher Longmans to protect copies of Heath's Keepsake. This early dust jacket even included advertisements for other publications by Longmans, showing that the firm was way ahead of its time in terms of marketing its wares.
Advertising with dust jackets
It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that British publishers slowly began to realise how useful dust jackets could be in promoting the books they contained and in providing useful advertising space for other publications. Over time dust jackets became increasingly decorative. A striking jacket design would be more likely to grab the attention of the book shop browser and could also be used to advertise other books published by the same company. By the 1920s it had become common practice for publishers to issue their books with illustrated dust jackets. The function of the dust jacket had changed from providing protection to being an important promotional tool.
Arthur T. Walden, ‘A Dog-puncher on the Yukon’
Arthur T. Walden
‘A Dog-puncher on the Yukon’
London: Werner Laurie
W. Somerset Maugham, ‘Ashenden’
W. Somerset Maugham
London: William Heinemann
Sophia Cleugh, ‘Spring’
Illustrator, Gladys Peto
Martha Ostenso, ‘The mad Carews’
‘The mad Carews’
(Illustrator, possibly, I.S.O.)
London: William Heinemann
James Hilton, ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’
‘Goodbye Mr Chips’
Illustrator, Bip Pares
Madeline Linford, ‘Bread and honey’
‘Bread and honey’
London: William Heinemann
The dust jacket evolves
As the use of the dust jacket as a marketing device rose, the art of the publisher's 'blurb' developed, first occurring around 1910. This might include a brief synopsis of the text, biographical information on the author with perhaps even a portrait of them, along with details of other books by the same author and publisher. The details displayed on these old dust jackets can today be seen as a valuable source of information, especially in the case of long out-of-print authors about whom little is known.
Following World War I, the standards of dust jacket design rose as high quality artists started to work commercially. In 1928 the war artist and portraitist Sir William Orpen commanded a fee of 100 guineas from publisher Ernest Benn for his dust jacket illustration on H.G. Wells' Mr Blettsworthy On Rampole Island. Unfortunately, the publisher lost Orpen's original artwork and it had to be recommisioned, and, of course, another 100 guineas paid.
Throwaway item or collector's item?
Stylistic developments were made in the art of the dust jacket. Wraparound illustrations took the whole dust jacket – front, back and spine – and created a continuous design across it all. Reduced images appeared on a book's spine – smaller versions or vignettes of the front cover design. The idea of a recognisable 'house-style' for individual publishers was introduced. Yet, still the dust jacket was seen as a throwaway item; once a book had been bought, the dust jacket's purpose – advertising – had been served.
In 1949 the V&A held 'The Art of the Book Jacket', the first international exhibition of dust jackets, which featured 460 exhibits from 19 different countries and proved to be very popular. As the 1950s progressed, publishers slowly began to view dust jackets as an integral part of the packaging and selling of the book. During the 1960s when technical progressions in print and design processes were made, dust jackets became ever brighter and more colourful as they clamoured on the shelves for attention.
Today old dust jackets have become valued items. A first edition book becomes infinitely more collectable (and valuable) if paired with its original dust jacket. What was once a throwaway item used purely to preserve the book it housed has now become covetable in itself.