The Sunday Salon: The History of the Book Cover

I’m a highly visual person; despite being burned by it time and time (and time!) again, I have to pick up beautiful book covers. I’ve absorbed some elements of graphic design haphazardly over the years, so I always appreciate a beautiful book cover. But recently, I got to thinking—how did the modern book cover evolve? Well, as I always like to say, there’s no excuse for ignorance if you’ve got the Internet, so I did a little research.

Prior to the nineteenth century, books were actually solid as unbound sheets—booksellers often bound the sheets for their customers, who always had the option to go commission their own binding elsewhere. Books were bound in any material that you could imagine. But it was during the eighteenth century that book covers came into their own.

During the eighteenth century, publishers began to provide temporary pasteboard bindings or small boxes with the unbound books. In the 1820s, as techniques for mechanical publishing improved, William Pickering, an English publisher, began to put out books uniformly bound in leather or, more importantly for the industry, cloth. (These days, cloth usually only covers the spine of a hardback book.)

Publishers followed Pickering’s lead and cloth bindings became common during the 1820s. At the end of the decade, dust jackets to protect books bound in cloth (and other more elaborate bindings) appeared.

The first dust jackets actually wrapped around the entire book like wrapping paper, and were sealed shut to protect the book. When you bought a book in this time period, you ripped off the dust jacket once you got home; the book’s binding was usually decorated with a simple design or image. The dust jackets themselves weren’t much to look at; this is the oldest dust jacket that we know of, from 1830.

But once the dust jacket developed flaps (there’s little information about why this occurred, but I can imagine it was to save paper), the book binding and dust jacket flipped duties in the twentieth century—it was cheaper to print designs and titles onto the paper dust jacket, instead of decorating the binding. After 1920, the dust jacket as we know now was more or less born.

My first full week back home went well—I got through Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers (which was fascinating) and am about to finish up In Great Waters, which is amazing. Next on deck is The Hero With a Thousand Faces, if only to absolve myself of the guilt I felt in not finishing it the first go round. I also had an interview of sorts for an internship with a literary agency–I’m waiting to hear back, but I think it looks promising.

I’m giving away the Uglies trilogy until Friday! Allie at Hist-Fic Chick is giving away a copy of The Confessions of Katharine Howard until tomorrow. Suvudu is giving away 50 ARCS of Grant Morrison’s Supergods until next Monday. Pyr-o-mania is giving away an ARC of Jon Sprunk’s Shadow’s Lure until June 3rd. Jaclyn Dolamore is giving away a paperback of Magic Under Glass brimming with extras and an ARC of Between the Sea and the Sky, an ARC of The Sea and the Sky, and a signed UK version of Magic Under Glass until June 7th. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

4 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: The History of the Book Cover

  1. Of course, a bad book cover can get a great book overlooked. I’ll be honest, I didn’t pick up G.R.R. Martin for a long time just because in the age of Michael Whelan and the late Keith Parkinson, a simple, slightly raised monochrome image just didn’t lure me in. I’ve yet to read Raymond Feist for the same reason (I’m sure they are great stories, but the simple book covers just keep pushing me away, and I’ve yet to have a friend kick me and make me read em).

    Still, interesting to know where the concept of doing covers came from. Thanks for the research.

  2. Thanks for the history lesson today. I love stuff like this. 🙂 I buy books based on the cover design all the times and I get the book home and after a few pages start to wonder what prompted me to buy it. Ahh, yes, the cover. I can’t help myself though and I doubt it will stop anytime soon.

  3. Interesting! I know very little about the mechanics of design, but I am so easily swayed by beautiful covers. I’d have read Harry Potter two years earlier than I did if it hadn’t been that I thought the cover looked (and title sounded) a bit stupid. And although I’ve rarely bought a book based only on its cover, I’ve gotten an absurd number of library books for that reason.

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