The Origin of the Dust Jacket

Or, as it is more usually known in the United Kingdom, the dust wrapper. Once purely utilitarian, these charming bits of publishing ephemera are now a crucial part of the package for most hard-cover books which are to be found on bookshelves today. Though, yet again, at least in terms of the history of books in the Regency, this article might be seen as leaning more toward the negative than the positive. Nevertheless, there were at least a few Regency books which had paper jackets or wrappers and it is probable that this topic is something which will be of interest to those true bibliophiles among authors and readers of Regency romance.

How and why books got jackets . . .

There were actually very few dust jackets to be found on books published prior to 1820, the year in which the Regency came to a close. From the earliest days of printing, printers were exactly that, printers. They were responsible for typesetting the pages of a book, locking the plates for each page into the press, inking the plates and pressing those inked plates onto the sheets of paper which would be cut and folded into the text block of a book. Those text blocks would then be sent off to the book-sellers who would make the books available to individual buyers. Each buyer would then send the text block they purchased off to their book-binder. At the binder’s shop, a craftsman would apply a sturdy, and usually attractive cover to the text block, thus protecting it as well as making it easy to handle, read and store.

When most print runs were for 500 copies of a book, or even less, which would be purchased only by the very wealthy, this painstaking, if disjointed book-making process functioned well enough for the parties involved. Even as print runs doubled to 1000 copies or more, this same process pertained, though with a few minor improvements. Early on, printers began wrapping each text block with a plain sheet of paper to keep it clean and protect the edges while it was transported to the book-seller’s shop and stored in the bins which were used before books were sold from shelves. Another improvement to this protective sheet of paper came when printers began printing the title of the book on the outside of the wrapping paper. This printed sheet soon became known as the bastard title or half-title.

It is possible the intention of bastard title sheet may have given rise to the first book wrappers, for the very early ones were indeed wrappers which covered the entire book. From at least the middle years of the Regency, if not earlier, certain "gift books" were published, often around the Christmas and Easter seasons. These books might contain a selection of seasonal poetry and prose, as well as engravings and other illustrations which would make suitable gifts for family and friends, such as a husband to his wife. These gift books usually had ornate and decorative bindings, often of silk. Though they could be quite pretty, silk bindings were actually very delicate and could not withstand repeated handling. The publishers of these gift books soon issued them individually wrapped in paper to protect the delicate silk binding during transport and display in book shops and elsewhere. It is not certain if these wrappers were initially plain, as no early examples survive. Most recipients of these gift books would have torn away the wrapper and tossed it, just as most people do with wrapping paper today. The very oldest dust wrapper known in England is in the collection of Bodleian Library at Oxford University. This white paper wrapper is printed with the name of the gift book it covered, Friendship’s Offering, the date of publication, a verse and the price, all of which is surrounded by a decorative border, all printed in black. The remnants of the sealing wax which was used to hold the wrapper in place around the book can still be seen attached to the surface.

Dust jackets in the form which we know them today also had their roots in the Regency era. However, the oldest known book jackets which exist in modern form are not from England. A German guide-book of the city of Nürnberg, Neues Taschenbuch Von Nürnberg, published in two volumes, in 1819, survives with plain paper book jackets. These jackets, like dust jackets today, wrap around the book covers, with ends that fold inside at the front and back, between the paste-downs and the fly-leaves. But these truly are jackets, as they do not cover the text block, so that the volumes can be opened and read while the jackets remain in place. These simple paper jackets are of a slightly mottled pale blue or grey paper. The title of the book, in a decorative frame, has been printed on a cream or white paper which has been pasted to the paper cover on the front. Unlike modern book jackets, these do not have the title of the book printed on the jacket spine.

Despite the fact that there are no extant English-language paper book jackets or wrappers which date to the Regency period, it is entirely possible that at least some books published in Regency England did have dust jackets in the form we know them today. Certainly, they would not be as ornate as most modern-day book jackets, nor as informative, since their intent would have been primarily utilitarian, the protection of the fine decorative cover beneath. High-end book-binders may have put paper jackets on their best books, perhaps at the request of their customers. Upscale book-sellers might have had one or two copies of a best-selling book elegantly bound, with protective paper jackets to protect them while on display in the shop. However, since those dust jackets were seen as a protective wrapper, most would have been discarded by the owner before they placed their new books on the shelves in their library or book room, since the cover beneath would certainly be more attractive that the fairly plain paper jacket.

In Great Britain, the full paper wrapper remained common on most gift books until those books fell out of fashion in the 1850s. By about that same time, book publishers were not only printing, but binding their own books, thus making them ready for immediate sale. Books were also being bound by machine, with cloth, rather than ornate gilt leather covers. But methods were developed for adding gilt and colored decoration to cloth-bound books, and these finer books needed protection during shipping and while on display in book shops. Most received a paper dust jacket, though these later jackets tended to be a bit more ornate than those which were used during the Regency. By the end of the nineteenth century, even books bound in plain cloth were given a printed paper jacket.

It was not until the years after World War I, a century after the Regency, with the growing expansion of graphic art and design, that publishers began to see the added value they could leverage from the jackets they put on their books. Not only did a colorful and well-designed jacket catch the eye of a potential buyer in a book shop, the publishers could tempt them further by including a paragraph or two about what the reader might find inside, in addition to a brief biography or the credentials of the author. Publishers also used the dust jacket to advertise other books the reader might find of interest, thus further increasing their sales, at minimal cost. Very few hard-cover books today are published without a dust jacket, though few of those jackets are now of paper. Most are of a thin, smooth plastic which accepts printing inks beautifully and are much stronger and sturdier than their paper predecessors.

Over the past quarter century or so, there has been an ongoing debate in most public and academic libraries about the value of the dust jacket and whether or not it should be retained when the book it enclosed entered the collection. Today, most libraries do retain the dust jacket, many of them enclosing them in a tough, transparent Mylar cover. Studies have shown that in public libraries, books which still retain their decorative dust jacket are 30 to 40% more likely to circulate than books with plain cloth bindings. These covers also do help protect the books from damage, thus reducing repair costs to the institution. However, the trade-off is that books with covers take up a bit more space on the shelf, perhaps as much as 2 to 3%. In collections of hundreds of thousands of books, this small percentage does add up in a reduction in available shelf space. Even so, most public libraries now retain the dust jackets for the books they acquire, and I believe most of their patrons are delighted that the do. I know I am.

While I was in graduate school, I worked as a cataloger in the university library, and at that time, the library had chosen not to retain dust jackets. Therefore, I had to remove the jacket of every book I cataloged. However, most of the librarians felt as I did, that many of those jackets were an art form. For that reason, all the jackets were placed in a large bin in the library offices and everyone was free to help themselves to any of the book jackets they liked. I framed a number of the most beautiful which I acquired so that I could enjoy them regularly, and I still enjoy them to this day.

So, what of paper book jackets in tales of romance, Dear Regency Authors? Will you find a place for one or two in an upcoming story? Since paper jackets were most likely to be found on books on display in book shops, might they be used to advance a budding romance, or enable secret communication between Crown agents? The paper used for these book jackets was fairly thick, though it is likely not thick enough to prevent anything written in ink from bleeding through to the outside. But pencil would not bleed through and could be an effective form of communication, between lovers or spies. The message could be jotted inside a paper book jacket in pencil, perhaps in code. Then only the title of the book, and in many cases, the volume number, need be communicated to the intended recipient. And what comedic or dire consequences might ensue should the wrong person get their hands on that message? Then again, perhaps the dust jacket of a perfectly respectable book of decorum is accidentally, or deliberately, placed on a very naughty book. What will happen when the buyer, perhaps a straight-laced aunt, purchases the book without looking too closely, as a gift for a niece she believes to be quite wild and in need of reform. How will that mix-up play out?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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6 Responses to The Origin of the Dust Jacket

  1. How fascinating! I always try to get secondhand copies of books with the jacket if possible, and if they are in poor condition I fold them carefully up inside the book. I have a few [mostly lurid] prewar ones, but none of the books printed on utility paper during the war have jackets, and I strongly suspect they may have been suspended for the duration to be resumed in the late 1940s. Some books now out of copyright are being reissued with copies of the original jackets printed as the front cover, which I find quite delightful. The Friends of the Chalet School group have done so with those of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s delightful Chalet School stories that have been out of print for a long time.
    I have to say the plot bunnies that came immediately to mind were similar to your own suggestions, though my thoughts on a salacious work wrapped as something innocuous ran to the heroine unwrapping what she thought was an innocent novel and finding something entirely different which had been left lying about by the hero. Whether he planned to read it, or had confiscated it from a young relative/the heroine’s brother might make a difference – especially if there are misunderstandings before she finds out he was trying to prevent her brother being led astray!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Like you, I try to get any second-hand books with a dust jacket, if issued, even if I have to pay a few extra bucks. I feel like the book is not whole without one. I have a number of older books with jackets in very bad shape. I found a place where I can get Mylar covers at a reasonable price, and have been gradually putting all the hurt dust jackets into Mylar to protect them. I get mine from a place here in the States, so shipping to the UK would probably put them too high to be worth the purchase. But there are probably places in the UK that sell them in small quantities. I actually found the shop with which I now deal through eBay. Maybe eBay in the UK might give you a lead? Otherwise you can search online for Mylar book covers, which should turn up some options. Before I found them on eBay, I was able to buy them in small batches from a local used book shop who ordered them in volume for their books. Maybe that would be another option, if you are interested.

      I suspect you are right about the use of dust jackets being suspended during WWII. From what I understand, there was a serious paper shortage during that time. In fact, it lasted into the 1950s, which is why the Lord of the Rings, which is not a trilogy, was published in three volumes. The novel as so long that Allen & Unwin, Tolkien’s publishers, could not get enough paper at one time to print the entire book. So they had him break it down into three parts, like a Regency three-decker, in order to be able to get it to press.

      Apparently, we are not the only ones who like dust jackets. I discovered during the course of my research that there are now some folks who reproduce/counterfeit dust jackets, particularly for first editions, since having an authentic dust jacket can as much as double the price of a first edition. That really surprised me. But I guess some people will do anything for money!

      I definitely like your plot bunny! So many opportunities for confusion and misunderstanding with a hint of naughtiness thrown in for spice.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • It probably destroys the value but I have pasted torn dust covers onto brown paper to preserve their integrity. I must look for the plastic covers for them. They would probably be available too for what I suspect might be some odd size formats peculiar to Britain if obtainable here.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I am sorry to have to tell you, but the use of the brown paper will not only destroy the value of your dust jackets, it will destroy the jackets themselves. Brown paper is loaded with sulfuric acid, which is used to break down the cellulose from which the paper is made. In things like brown paper and newspaper, it is not buffered or neutralized, so it just keeps on breaking the cellulose down. That is why newspapers turn yellow and brittle over time.

          If you are going to get some plastic covers, be sure you get Mylar, or other brands which are labeled acid-free. Otherwise, you will eventually loose your dust jackets. Here in the US, the Mylar covers are sold in a few different sizes, so they can be cut and/or folded to fit just about any book size but something like an elephant folio. I suspect the same will be the case in the UK, so you should be able to find protective covers to fit even the oddest sizes.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • … I did actually use the acid free brown paper that comes wrapped around my art paper when I buy in bulk, because it always seems a shame to throw it out when they’ve gone to the trouble of neutralising it… I’m fairly acid aware, being an artist, so tend to automatically use acid free for anything needing archiving. And I will certainly be looking out for Mylar covers!

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