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Friday, May 1, 2015

A history of the dust jacket

As the previous post hints, choosing a design for a book jacket is an intense and important process.

And yet, dust jackets are a relatively new development. Originally, they were intended to protect the beautiful binding, and were often just a rectangle of paper used to wrap the book like a parcel.  As a fascinating post on relates there was no design at all. The title of the book might be printed on the paper wrapping, to make sorting easier, but the wrapping itself was meant to be discarded.

The first wrapping that matched the size of the book most probably appeared in the 1830s, the idea being that it would persuade the purchaser to keep the paper jacket, to protect the book while it was being read.  And it took another fifty years for publishers to realize that more information could be displayed on the wrapper. They might even include an image, as well as the names of the book, the publisher, and the author, as in the early edition of The Moonstone, above. The authors approved -- Lewis Carroll wrote to his publishers in 1876 persuading them to print the title on the spine area of the dust jacket of The Hunting of the Snark to keep it in a "cleaner and more saleable condition."  The idea was that the customer could read the title of the book without having to pry it out of the bookseller's shelf.

But still the major reason for the wrapper was to preserve the lovely binding underneath.  It was not until the 1920s that publishers (and writers) realized that it was a major marketing tool.  It was possible to have not just the title and author's name, but a synopsis, too.  Then elaborate dust jackets became all the rage -- in the 1940s even paperbacks had one.  Then, as the century progressed, the jackets became more and more ornate.  Graphics were explored for their attention-seizing value, and about the 1970s the blurb was invented. For a little while famous authors were paid by publishers to write a few complimentary words about another writer's book, but blurbing quickly became free, as authors vied to get their names on jackets.

Book jacket design became an industry, one that, interestingly, hasn't faltered with the development of digital books.  The original idea of producing a jacket that stood out on the bookstore shelf has simply evolved into the need for a design that is commanding when displayed as a thumbnail.

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