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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Readers, what are some of your favorite dust jackets?