Dust Jacket Logic: It Exists

Many novices to book collecting don’t get dust jackets. How can a single piece of paper make the difference between a $4000 book and a $75,000 book? How can certain first editions suddenly lose all their collectible value if they’re missing the paper they were wrapped in? Collectors are weird!

 

Said book, worth $4000 without the jacket but can be $75,000 or more with it.
Said book: worth up to $4000 without the jacket but can be $75,000 or more with it. (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

I’m going to attempt to defend the quirk that says a piece of paper around the book matters. My defense: a lesson in the history of printing.

 

Dust jackets are seen as a trait of 20th-century books. But the earliest dust jackets appeared surprisingly early in the 19th century–the oldest known jacket dates from 1830. Yet we don’t associate dust jackets with the 19th century because the early stages of dust jacket evolution were humble, and as such, the jackets were rarely saved.

 

Dust jackets were first used for books with beautiful, elaborate, expensive bindings. Seem counterintuitive? Why cover up a gorgeous binding?

 

When you buy a book from Bauman Rare Books, or from a high quality dealer in general, your book will come wrapped not only in something used for stuffing the package (like bubble wrap), but the book itself will be wrapped in paper, like a present. Dealers do this to provide extra protection for the book in transit.

 

And that’s how dust jackets were born: those luxurious bindings had to be protected until they reached their final home. What’s worse than buying a new book with a fancy binding, only to receive it scuffed up?

 

An 1845 German prayer book bound in velvet, with onlaid gold-plated filigree borders. Damage in transit to this beauty? The horror!
An 1845 German prayer book bound in velvet, with onlaid gold-plated filigree borders. Damage in transit to this beauty? The horror! (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

So dust jackets started not as part of the books, but as a means of protecting the book. Not too hard to understand, since jackets still function as protection to their books today. The difference is that today we don’t throw away the dust jacket after we’ve gotten the book safely home. Unlike in the 19th century, today we see dust jackets as part of the book.

 

This change in perspective occurred for largely commercial reasons. Booksellers found it useful for the title of the book to be printed on the protective shipping wrapper to help identify the book underneath. It was only a matter of time before the commercial capabilities were tapped.

 

A first edition of Red Badge of Courage (1895) by Stephen Crane, in the extremely rare original dust jacket.
A first edition of Red Badge of Courage (1895) by Stephen Crane, in the extremely rare dust jacket. (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

During this time, a given book’s cover and its dust jacket were both often decorated to help sell the book. (And in plenty of cases, a dust jacket still wasn’t even issued.) But towards the end of the 19th century, booksellers began to realize that it was cheaper to focus all their efforts on decorating the jacket covering the book, rather than the book itself. The elaborate cloth book designs of the late-19th century fell out of favor, supplanted by simpler book covers wrapped in beautiful dust jackets.

 

First edition in English (1883) of Jules Verne's Green Ray, proudly displaying an elaborately decorated cover.
First edition in English (1883) of Jules Verne’s Green Ray, proudly displaying an elaborate design on the book itself. (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

A first edition of Tarzan of the Apes (1914), in the extremely scarce original dust jacket.
A first edition of Tarzan of the Apes (1914), in the extremely scarce original dust jacket. (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

A first edition Tarzan without its jacket, showing much simpler decoration.
A first edition Tarzan without its jacket, with much simpler decoration. (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

Once their cheap marketing potential became clear, publishers took much more notice of dust jackets. They knew a great cover alone could sell a book, so they started hiring artists to design covers. The better the design, the more help it provided selling the book. Everyone wins: publishers sell more books, consumers receive beautiful books. Many of the most sought-after jackets in the history of printing are, naturally, celebrated for their artwork.

 

You knew it was coming: Gatsby's jacket. One of the reasons it commands such a high price is because of the effectiveness and beauty of the design.
You knew it was coming: Gatsby’s jacket. One of the reasons it commands such a high price is because of the effectiveness and beauty of the design. (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

And now, in the early 20th century, some consumers began to save the dust jackets even after they brought the book home safely. The jackets were too visually appealing to throw in the trash. This is why we associate jackets with the 20th century—it was really after 1900 that dust jackets were consistently produced and perceived to be appealing, not just the trash wrapping the book was shipped in. The jacket had become a part of the book, without which the book would seem incomplete.

 

Thinking of this book separated from its amazing jacket makes me sad.
Thinking of this book separated from its amazing jacket makes me sad. (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

From protection to marketing, marketing to art. That’s the story of dust jackets.

 

Back to the beginning: why dust jackets? The obvious answer is that collectors want the book to remain as close as possible to the state they appeared when they were first produced. But dust jackets take that historian’s dream and add simple appreciation for a beautiful creation. The first edition book and the artwork first envisioned for it belong together, a time capsule of the moment when that book first appeared in the world.

 

To that end, one of my favorite dust jackets:

 

A first edition of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Those who have read the book will note the importance Rodin sculpture depicted here.
A first edition of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961). Those who have read the book will note the importance of the Rodin sculpture depicted here. (Image courtesy Bauman Rare Books)

 

Readers, what are some of your favorite dust jackets?

 

 

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67 Comments Add yours

  1. I am always fascinated to see how book jackets change over time and from one country to another. Very interesting article on the subject. Thanks

  2. I love this post! I have all my picture books from childhood. Although they aren’t in perfect condition, I love their dust jackets. I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. Congrats on FP!

  3. Andi says:

    Reblogged this on EMME Books and commented:
    I retesting facts on books!

  4. enhillstrom says:

    I have a terrible habit of disliking dust jackets. I never throw them away as I also have a terrible habit of hording, but there’s just something about holding a book with that jacket on it that makes me cringe. I don’t like that feeling at all. I also don’t really like paperback books for just about the same reason. However, all of that really doesn’t have much to do with this article which is very interesting. Thanks for posting! haha

  5. JD says:

    Shame on me…I usually take the dust jackets off my books because I like the look of them better without them! But I do keep some…Nicholas Sparks has the best ones. They are always a picture that symbolizes a quaint little town in North Carolina. Whenever I pick up one of his books to re-read, I want to fall into it and just live in that place depicted on the cover.

  6. Katrina Snyder says:

    The artwork on these books is fantastic! I just did a post about vintage books and their cover art 🙂

  7. I have this vision of book collectors as the geeky action figure collector afraid to remove the toy from the plastic. There’s the book you buy to collect and the cheap paperback version that you buy to read.

    One of my friends used to buy cartons of baseball card packs: the entire box filled with sets of wrapped cards (and gum) that a store would put out to sell the packs individually. In his circle, the unopened carton was the valuable thing even though nobody knew which cards were in the pack.

    1. Some book collectors are like that, yes. One famous collector said you need three copies of every book: one to collect, one to read, and one to lend.

      But book collectors come in all varieties! I do know some collectors who actually read their first edition. Everyone is different.

  8. Brian says:

    I love the art and history, but as an avid reader I always take them off. Too clumsy and annoying when holding a book close.

  9. Raúl says:

    Throwing a dust jacket away -besides its practical use- is losing half the cover art. It is peculiar that music recordings went the same way: CDs have less than half the cover art that long-playing albums used to have.

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