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History of Dust Jacket (It's More Interesting Than You Think)

History of Dust Jacket (It's More Interesting Than You Think)
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Palina Dolia

Let's face it, when we pick a book, we all look at the cover. Book design is gaining momentum right now and it's always nice to have a beautifully designed home library. Now think, how many of your books still have dust covers? What happens to them after the purchase? Do you throw them away, leaving the book intact, or, on the contrary, keep a more colourful wrapper for the glory of aesthetics?

We have already figured out why books are rectangular and how they became a universal gift. It's time to have a dig at dust jackets!

Well, as you can see, modern book design is very, very young. But each element of the book still has a fascinating story, and even the novelty of dust jackets is no exception. So who is the ancestor of this book "dress"? We'll explore the "Encyclopedia of Book Making" and look at the history of the dust jacket in stages.

Books as a luxury: before the 1800s

Books were a rarity for a long time. Accordingly, they were protected with utmost care – otherwise why such efforts? The first scrolls were wrapped in skins for greater safety, fitted into tube cases and put in special lockers, but this is still far from what we call today a dust jacket. Kumdakhs, Irish reliquary boxes from the early Middle Ages, got a little closer. Rich ornamentation, decoration on the lid and general shape to fit the book, as good as any dust jacket from the 800s. Not only looks beautiful, but can also protect the book from bad weather. Modern dust jackets cannot boast of this.


Until the 16th century, books were wrapped in covers made of silk, leather or velvet – still beautiful, but less convenient for transportation. However, during this period, there was no longer any necessity to carry books across the rainy plains of Ireland, so the emphasis on aesthetics was not useless.

Books are still a luxury: the 1800s

This period is significant for the history of modern books; as well as because humanity finally came to dust jackets. Books ceased to be the privilege of the richest. They were still sold unlike in modern stores, though – with a thin temporary binding or without it at all. How about that? Buy a stack of book pages so that you can order a cover for them yourself; after all, every self-respecting book lover of the 1800s should have had a not only extensive home library, but the spines also should match colour.

The dust jacket appears during this period to protect still costly books, gilded and embossed on a leather cover. Dark leather and gold, as we all know, go well with bookshelves of all tones, so there was no need to order the cover yourself. So sellers wrapped such books in paper to safely store them (the cost was a little less than a fortune). By 1830, they started to protect fabric bindings with paper covers from dust, and just in case. However, all these prototype dust jackets were disposable and not very aesthetic.

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Still, there were exceptions. Let's take, for example, a book "Friendship's Offering" (by the way, a special deluxe edition), published in 1829. On its dust jacket... advertisements of other books were placed. 

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From the 1850s on, books were protected not with paper, but with more transparent parchment, so that you could finally see the cover. However, paper covers also found a way out. They simply cut out holes where illustrations and a book name were on the spine – minus to the safety, plus to the buyer interest. On the remained part of the jacket they printed advertisements of other books and all, that could prove useful to the mean statistical reader – for example, a good soap.

Thus, by 1890, dust jackets, however unusual to us, strengthened their positions and they became a common phenomenon. They even began to remove advertisements and substitute them with illustrations. Yes, simple and ornamental, but still better than the "Buy Snyder Brothers Soap!" right above the title "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland".

Books are available to everyone: 1900s 

By the beginning of the twentieth century, books finally became affordable for masses: everyone reads. Books would be sold from store shelves, from open vans on the streets; even travelling salespersons fill their suitcases with books and hit the road. While the quality of covers and paper improved, dust jackets became a necessity. And since the book needs to be sold, even the paper wrapper should look attractive! 

At first, illustrations were used only for children's books, but by 1910, booksellers had finally realized that a book is judged by its cover. This is how paper wrappers finally began to be actively decorated with pictures, patterns, ornaments and almost completely got rid of advertisements. New book recommendations continued to be printed on the back cover. The print quality was still not perfect, so the number of colours in the illustration did not differ in variety.

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The change also took place in the 1920s. At first, a book price had been printed on the dust jacket, but now it was finally transferred to the inner liner, so there was no need to throw away the beautiful wrapper of gift editions – now the price of the book could simply be cut off. However, dust jackets caused outrage among aesthetes. Because colourful wrappers were rude and vulgar, and a book should be judged by its content, and not by its picture, all the more so disposable. Such were the morals.

Time passed, and dust jackets became more complex, stronger and more colourful. They acquired laminated coverings and unusual embossing on special editions. Books design kept on changing and became incredibly attractive... But that's a completely different story.

Dust covered books: reliable today and exciting tomorrow

So, nearly 200 years after the invention of the first dust jacket, what has become of them now? In fact, everything is complicated. Many book lovers still treat such wrappers as trash – they take them off after the purchase and throw them into the trash can without remorse before putting the book on the shelf. On the other hand, many people really started to appreciate the aesthetic part of dust jackets.

Let's face it, sometimes a dust jacket is much brighter and more beautiful than the original. Therefore, instead of protecting the publication from dust, dirt and your scarce tears over price tags in bookstores, the dust jacket suddenly acquired an aesthetic function. Because we love beautiful things. Besides, books in a wrapper are selling much better than without it. Some wrappers are no less unique than the books themselves and are also hunted by book collectors. Even exact copies of old dust jackets are created, costing fortune. Therefore, someone still needs dust jackets, since there is such a demand.

After all, the main question of dust jackets is to keep or not to keep? Listen to your heart and decide which side you are on.

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