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Dust Jackets & Edgar Wallace

January, 2006
By Diane De Blois

The book-jacket, or dust-jacket, was designed to be discarded. This makes it an almost quintessential piece of ephemera.

Booksellers at first protected their finer bindings, especially leather, with plain paper or cardboard, sometimes with windows cut out of the spine to show the title. Some gift books of the 1820s and 1830s were sold in a pasteboard sheath for protection—rather like that used for folded game boards or maps (often cited as the earliest recorded decorated wrapper was such a sheath for a bound copy of the American Atlantic Souvenir for 1828). But the earliest known book-jacket in the modern sense is a wrapper produced by the British publisher Longmans to protect their 1833 edition of Heath’s Keepsake. It is printed in red on pale buff paper, with the title, description and publisher’s imprint within a formal frame, and a back advertisement for other Longmans’ publications, concluding with Turner’s Annual Tour to be “published on Nov. 1st, 1832.” This first protective book covering was issued within seven years of the first use of cloth for book casings, and only four years after Heath’s introduction of watered silk. It would appear that these cloth bindings were more vulnerable to soiling, and Longmans’ innovation combined protection with commercial advertisement – a pattern that persisted.

The dust jacket evolved slowly over the rest of the 19th century. With some exceptions (a wrapper printed in three colors protected an American 1845 edition of William E. Lord’s poems; Appleton’s wrapped The Poetical Works of the late Richard S. Gedney in 1857 with a printed jacket that completely enclosed the book; Longmans in 1860 wrapped Bunyon’s The Pilgrim’s Progress with a jacket illustrated with one of the book’s woodcuts by Charles Bennett), the development in the 1890s went from plain transparent glassine, to Kraft paper with heavy block lettering, to Kraft paper with silhouette design, to smooth paper with black and white sketch, to imitation art paper with 3-color picture. And then the illustrated dust-jacket took flight—particularly for children’s books. Usually the pictorial content was from the book itself. But by 1928 well-known artists were attracted to the venue (Sir William Orpen was commissioned by Ernest Benn to illustrate the jacket for H.G. Wells Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island in 1928).

Inevitably, there evolved the question of whether the jacket had intrinsic value and should not be discarded. My grandparents belonged to the group who considered that keeping the wrapper on a book was déclassée, and their bookshelves were paper-free. In England, particularly, the circulating libraries removed book-jackets before entering volumes into the system. Until 1923, their practice was to throw them all out—but in that year the British Museum began to preserve the wrappers, in bundles separate from the books. By the end of 1930, the accumulation was judged to have gotten out of hand, and thereafter only a selection would be preserved.

In the U.S., collectors, bibliographers and dealers took sides on the jacket question. Few collections preserved any jackets before 1917, though Paul Lemperley of Cleveland was a notable exception—proud to show, for instance, his copy of The Red Badge of Courage, still mint in dust-jacket as it had arrived from the publisher in 1895.

In a 1932 article on book-wrappers in The Book Collector’s Quarterly, Sir Henry McAnally observed that book collectors were beginning to value more highly volumes that retained their wrappers—though he didn’t imagine the collecting of the wrappers themselves would ever be popular. He did point out that information available only on the jackets (like the ‘blurbs’ about the authors) added to the desirability of a collection.

Richard de la Mare, in his Dent Memorial Lecture of 1935, “A Publisher on Book-Production,” called the book-jacket “that wretched thing, of which we sometimes deplore the very existence.” The critic, Richard Straus, however, in a 1924 T.P.’s and Cassell’s Weekly article: recommended: “If you are a collector of modern books, don’t throw away these gay covers in which they are generally encased. One day they may be of considerable value. You smile! But I will give you my reasons … Yet how many preserve these jackets? I know of only one other collector besides myself. A few careful souls cut out the picture, if they are attracted by the design, and paste it inside the boarded covers, but in general it is looked at and thrown away. I am convinced that the jacket in some form or another will be required at future book sales, and perhaps some ingenious collector will devise a new plan for its preservation.” Prescient collector, indeed.

The first International Book-Jacket Exhibition was held in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1949, largely the collection of Charles Rosner, whose excellent book on the subject appeared in 1954 (Sylvan Press, London). Sir Max Beerbohm responded in The Observer:“I gather that to the many other arts has now been added the art of the book-jacket, and that there is an exhibition of it in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I doubt whether, if I were in England, I would visit this, for I have in recent years seen many such exhibitions. To stand by any book-stall or to enter any book-shop is to witness a terrific scene of internecine warfare between the innumerable latest volumes, almost all of them violently vying with one another for one’s attention, fiercely striving to outdo the rest in crudity of design and of colour. It is rather like visiting the parrot-house in the Zoological Gardens, save that there one can at least stop one’s ears with one’s fingers, whereas here one merely wants to shut one’s eyes.”

Buyers of new books today may empathize with Beerbohm’s reaction to the ‘art of the dust-jacket’ as crass commercialism. But another element had firmly entered the field of wrapper appreciation by the 1920s—artistic illustration not merely to attract (and to suggest the book’s content) but to stand by itself as art. Designers both known (Rockwell Kent for Harcourt, Brace’s Paul Bunyan in 1928; Paul Wench for Horace Liveright’s Painted Veils in 1928; Vanessa Bell for Hogarth Press’ Virginia Woolf) and unknown created a jacket that was more than protection and promotion.

So, by the post-war Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhibition, the lines had been drawn for dust-jacket controversy. Jackets should either be thrown away along with other advertising detritus, or saved as artistic expression. A book was either better off on a shelf without them (certainly if the shelf was in a public library), or was only “whole” with jacket on. The rare book trade soon decided the market value of certain books with jackets was astronomically higher – and that, as all bookmen know, has led to marrying books with jackets from other editions and to reproduction jackets (not all of them produced with intent to deceive, but some to inform collectors of what they are missing).

But, back to ephemera. Beyond the jacket’s short-lived intent, there is also an undeniable à la mode specificity about the design of a wrapper. One could produce a ‘history wall,’ for instance, a time-line of visual images, with a chronological display of dust-jackets for 20th century American fiction. (In 1930, Henry F. Pits wrote in American Book Illustration:“A collection of contemporary book jackets serves as a barometer of interest and taste. One can easily imagine a scholar of a hundred years hence poring over them with fascination. They will carry the flavor of our age as effectively as the Victorian valentines or the early English chapbooks do theirs.”)

Many of you will have seen John Updike’s review of Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger’s By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design (Princeton Architectural Press) in The New Yorker of 17 October 2005. Updike chose, as the review’s single illustration, the three best-known dust-jackets for James Joyce Ulysses: Ernst Reichl 1934; E. McKnight Kauffer 1949; Carin Goldberg 1986. Steven Heller and Seymour Chwast in their 1995 Jackets Required: An Illustrated History of American Book Jacket Design, 1920-1950, also featured the Reichl and Kauffer designs, but added an anonymous jacket for The Modern Library edition of 1946. Drew and Sternberger used the Reichl design to herald Modernism in wrapper art. Heller and Chwast make the point that each iteration of a design for Ulysses rejected a typical narrative image in favor of a typographic, but that Kauffer’s 1947 remains the best-known. Certainly it is the least easy to date—the others could almost be instructional posters for typography representative of their respective decades.

Updike was critical of Drew and Sternberger’s leaving Edward Gorey’s dust-jackets out of their discussion— “… the quiet, hand-lettered, cross-hatchy covers he executed in the fifties for Doubleday Anchor books [that] spoke reassuringly, in the fledgling days of the paperback revolution, of dependability.” I’m a fan of these Gorey covers myself—but Updike unwittingly makes another point here (besides that we turn to books for reassurance as well as stimulation) that refers to the emotional response to jacket illustration. At the same time that Updike was reassured by Gorey—embraced Melville, Gogol, Kierkegaard or Stendhal, other readers were emotionally reassured by the “two-bit cheesecake” promises on mystery pulps. What kept readers returning to the same author (or the same publisher) was often the jacket design … a kind of emotional visual attachment. And, as with all ephemera, jackets then become unconscious documents of everyday life.

Authors and publishers, of course, were aware of this emotional dimension – and sought ways to encourage readers’ visual attachment. In examining the largest private collection of Edgar Wallace’s books, I looked for evidence of this. Wallace was king of pot-boilers. In the 1920s, at his height of popularity, one out of every five books published in the English language was his. Arguably, his most potent creation was the film of King Kong— for which he moved from England to Hollywood, where he died before the film was finished in 1932. That same year, a novelization of King Kong (“conceived by Edgar Wallace and Merian C. Cooper”) was published by Grossett & Dunlop—a classic American spin-off from the movies. Ironically, the first British edition wasn’t published until August 1966 as a paperback by Corgi Books. The illustrated posters for the film were stylistically similar to the melodramatic dust-jackets of much of Wallace’s previous literary output. But, especially because Wallace’s books were so popular among readers who depended on Britain’s lending libraries, most of his dust jackets were destroyed. The books usually had interior illustrative plates—but Wallace’s publishers seemed to try to make the cover more visual, even if the wrapper was discarded.

One solution was to issue a book in illustrated card covers. Wallace’s Captain Tatham of Tatham Island was published in April 1909 by Gale and Polden in England (no record of U.S. publication) with a front cover illustration of the Island (this book had a triple life, as The Island of Galloping Gold in 1916, and Eve’s Island in 1926). Tallis Press issued Smithy in June 1905 (no record of U.S. publication) in pictorial card covers. Smithy Abroad, a collection of short stories, was also issued in April 1909 in pictorial card covers by Hulton as was Smithy’s Friend Nobby by Town Topics in December 1914 and Smithy and the Hun by Pearson in May 1915. The first edition of Flat 2 was a paperback issued in the U.S. by Garden City books in 1924—with an illustrated front cover.

Large format (11 x 8.5 inches) but slender paperbacks offered a prime venue for pictorial covers. Kitchener’s Army and The Territorial Forces was first published in February 1915 in six such paperbacks by the British publisher Newnes, priced at 7 pence. Then they were bound together by Newnes in June 1915 and sold as a 6 shilling book. This was so successful that Newnes issued War of the Nations in 155 weekly parts (11 x 8 inches, 4 and 1/2 pence) from 1915 to 1917 (Combridge reissued these in 11 volumes as Britain’s Fight for Right.)

For truly popular distribution, Wallace’s stories (as with many other authors) were first issued in formats that were more like magazines. Newnes produced sixpence books, heavy with advertisements, that had colorful cover illustrations. For Information Received first appeared this way in September 1929, along with other authors’ stories, as did Killer Kay in April 1930, and The Lady Called Nita in a separate April 1930 volume (the title and cover illustration was of the Wallace story).

Wallace’s most reprinted book, The Four Just Men, was first published by Tallis in November 1905 (the first U.S. edition was a Small Maynard in 1920) with an advertisement for a £500 reward for solving the mystery, printed on the front cover. Tallis reissued the book in June 1906, with an additional chapter (XII, the solution) and with a pictorial plate glued to the front cover to obscure the competition advertisement. This idea of a pasted-on cover illustration became, in a sense, a more durable dust-jacket for Wallace’s books.

In January 1913, the British publisher Ward Lock issued Grey Timothy (no record of U.S. publication) in a tooled binding and a pictorial plate glued to the front cover (their 1912 Wallace books, The People of the River and Private Selby had just tooled bindings). This color plate on tooled binding became their preferred design (for instance, in June 1913, Ward Lock issued The River of Stars; in February 1915, Wallace short stories Bones; and in September 1918 Lieutenant Bones—in similar bindings). In December 1925, the British publisher G. Gill issued four Wallace novels (no record of U.S. publication) with color plates glued to the front cover of each, under the omnibus title The Black Avons: How They Fared in the Time of the Tudors, Roundhead and Cavalier, From Waterloo to the Mutiny and Europe in the Melting Pot.

Though no famous artists illustrated Wallace, the plates, covers and jackets were usually signed (some just with initials)—his wide distribution gave coverage to the artists as well. Appreciating both the art and the writing, now, is a little like time travel. Without attempting to inhabit the popular mind of the 1920s, both just seem ‘camp.’ But the emotional energy is still undeniable.


Drew, Ned & Paul Sternberger. By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design. Princeton NJ 2005.
Heller, Steven & Seymour Chwast. Jackets Required. An Illustrated History of American Book Jacket Design 1920-1950. San Francisco Chronicle Books 1995.
Kiddle, Charles. A guide to the First Editions of Edgar Wallace. Ivory Head Press, Dorset 1981.
Minor, Wendell & Florence Friedmann. Art for the written word: Twenty-five years of book cover art. Harcourt Brace, NY 1995.
Rickards, Maurice. Encyclopedia of Ephemera. Routledge NY 2000.Rosner, Charles. The Growth of the Book-Jacket. Sylvan Press. London 1954.
Weidemann, Kurt. Book Jackets and Record Covers: an international survey. Praeger NY 1969.