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Always Use Protection: A Brief History of the Dust Jacket

Hold on to your hats, kids, because we’re about to discuss something mind-blowing: dust jackets. You know, that decorative sheet of paper around hardcover books that you use to mark your place. Dust jackets have been around in some form since the early nineteenth century and became rote in the early twentieth, but they haven’t always looked like the shiny, colorful protective sleeve we’ve come to know and love.

The earliest known “dust jacket” dates to 1830 and is housed at the Bodleian Library at Oxford. It covered a copy of Friendship’s Offering, a literary annual fashionable in the 19th century as a gift book. Indeed, almost all of the earliest extant examples of dust jackets covered gift books. Gift books were luxuriously bound in silk or leather and finely decorated, so the dust jackets served to protect the binding before the book was gifted, then they were meant to be thrown away. Since they were disposable, they featured minimal decoration, often the just the title of the book they covered. They also covered the entire book like a package and were sealed with wax. Think of it like wrapping paper on a Christmas gift.

By the mid-19th century, dust jackets had taken on a greater purpose and longevity. The 1850s saw some of the first dust jackets that left the book block exposed, so the book could be used with the dust jacket on. Many were actually manufactured separately from books and their covers, and implemented by the user or bookseller to protect their investments.

We have an example of one early dust jacket coming up for auction in our spring Books and Prints sale. This ordinary mathematics textbook from 1874 retains "Holden's Book Cover", for which the patent was still pending. Payne, Holden, and Co., a company based in Dayton, Ohio, made these dust jackets specifically for school books, and they were sold separately. It was a pretty smart innovation economically, because the company sold advertising space on the rear of the dust jackets in addition to selling the jackets themselves. Their brilliant marketing extended to trade journal advertisements, which boasted both to consumers that Holden’s Covers could be “Applied in one second. Stronger than cloth!” and to advertisers that their sales were 100k/month. The front panel of the jackets included the book title and blank lines for writing the owner's name; the rear featured the paid advertisements.

Dust jackets were widely in use by the beginning of the 20th century, when we begin to see the decoration and quality we have come to expect. By the 1920s, publishers were emphasizing dust jackets over the bindings themselves, leaving the covers relatively bare and instead issuing books with glossy, highly pigmented wrappers. While aesthetic sensibilities about their decoration have shifted with the times, the structure and function of the dust jacket has remained relatively unchanged since then. Nearly every modern dust jacket includes the title, author, publisher, suggested retail price, synopsis, author biography, and some advertisements or praise from reviewers.

The following two science fiction books were published almost 50 years apart, but as you can see, they feature the same relative information.

For collectors and dealers, dust jackets often make or break a sale. All books issued with a dust jacket should retain it for optimal value, and condition is everything. Obviously, it is nearly impossible to find a book from the 1920s with a perfectly preserved jacket, but it is important to buy copies that have no dust jacket loss. Sometimes the only way to identify a true first edition is by dust jacket analysis, so having the whole thing is vital.

Keep an eye out for the forthcoming catalog of our spring Books and Prints auction, which will feature some truly gorgeous dust jackets.

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