[ModLib] Brief History of the Dust Jacket

Roger Lathbury lathbury at gmu.edu
Sun Jun 26 17:33:44 EDT 2011

Is any of this of interest?

Dust jackets were first put on books as a regular matter around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. Before then, book cover were illustrated or ornamented, but there were no jackets.

Indeed, up until the end of the 18th century one bought the loose signatures and had books bound at one's bindery--using simple cloth if one was of modest means, leather if richer, or with one's coat of arms if one had a title and the money.

Around the turn into the 20th century, jackets were plain. They printed the title of the book and the author's name, and publisher's name. On occasion other books by the same author might be listed or even advertising. Many of these plain jackets have not survived. They were meant only to protect the binding and, not being of much intrinsic interest or beauty, were tossed.

It wasn't until after World War I that illustrated jackets began in a serious way--when jackets were used to market books. Cf. Fitzgerald's interest in the jackets of his books to the indifference of Dreiser, Edith Wharton, and others on the same subject. Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald'e editor, used to immediately throw away the jacket before putting the book on his shelves. Even then the evolution to the illustrated jacket was gradual.

However, it was not long before the importance of the jacket to marketing was evident. At some point jackets became more important than bindings, which tended to become cheaper and cheaper. You can see this trend in the plain jackets of the first Modern Library Books to the later ones with the balloon cloth and the the 1940's versions. Whatever one may think of the leatherette bindings (which have lasted but are kind of mucky now after 90 years--at least my copy of _A Hazard of New Fortunes_ is), they were meant to imitate the binding style that a discriminating person would select on his own and to add class to his library. They were meant to give distinction to an inexpensive reprint series.

Libraries often discarded jackets.Some publishers would supply books to libraries without dust wrappers. It was cheaper. Sometimes they would design "Library Bindings," which might mean smythe-sewn bindings in which the text block was also glued to the interior of the spine, as in very old books (pages were attached to the spines on very early books--thus those ridges on old bindings are for where threads would be). Or "library binding" signified a sewn binding, sometimes side stitched, when the regular edition was perfect bound. The difference in cost between a sewn binding and the perfect bound one could be nullified by not providing a jacket.

The endpapers in the buckram Modern Library bindings I have are not continuous. One can see the white extra heavy "super" that holds the text block to the boards. This is also another definition of "library binding." The grey of the endpapers is sturdier than the paper on which printed runner device is found.

I don't know whether Modern Library buckrams had jackets. The Collected Poems of Shelley that I own does not, nor does one other (whose title escapes me at the moment). I think I found these books at yard sales or library sales. Don't remember.


Roger Lathbury
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