Pradeep Sebastian

Endpaper: The dust jacket story

Book Jackets: Their History, Form and Use by Thomas Tanselle

Book Jackets: Their History, Form and Use by Thomas Tanselle   | Photo Credit: mail_grjgm

Did you ever think a book's cover was not as important as the text inside? Thomas Tanselle's definitive study says otherwise.

“How old is the book jacket?” asked John T. Winterrich in a column he wrote for Publishers Weekly in 1929 and answered that he didn't know of any before 1896. Intrigued, and certainly provoked, book dealers and collectors wrote in to give earlier instances of book jackets in their collection. A correspondence ensued between them, and Winterrich could now revise the date to cite a jacket from 1876: Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark and, one from 1870, Dickens' The Mystery of Edwin Drood. In 1931, however, the legendary bibliographer-dealer, John Carter, brought up an earlier example: a dust-jacketed Pilgrim's Progress from 1860. Even as he offered this example of an early dust-jacket, Carter added that he was sure this date would take a beating and, just three years later, he himself came through with “a printed paper covering for The Keepsake of 1833”.

In Thomas Tanselle's definitive study of book jackets, you find examples that go back even further: The Royal Engagement Pocket Atlas, 1778, came with a detachable book covering, a sheath (slipcases open at one or both ends) that was used for pocket diaries, gift books, and literary annuals. The phenomenon of jackets begins with the introduction of publisher's cloth (cloth covered boards) in 1820. It wasn't the familiar dust-jacket we know — the jacket with flaps; these were paper wrappings to keep the book fresh and unsoiled until it reached a customer, who would then discard the wrapper to read the book. Flap style jackets didn't appear until the 1830s and two other familiar features of the jacket — “printing on the flaps and the use of blurbs” — not until the 1890s. (Tanselle wagers that there is a probable case to be made for flap style jackets in use from 1819 but warns us that it far from conclusive).

Functional first

They began as functional objects — protective devices and advertisements (for titles from the same publisher) — and only much afterwards, in the 1920s, as decorative covers. The cloth bindings itself functioned as pictorial covers, and once they became plainer, jackets became more beautiful. They combine “the artistic feature of the binding with the advertising appeal of the poster.” Unfortunately it was still commonplace for readers and even collectors to chuck away the jacket, and they are now some of the scarcest objects in the history of the printed book. Because they are detachable, we continue to think of jackets as not being intrinsic to the book. In Book Jackets: Their History, Form and Use, published by the Bibliographical Society of Virginia and distributed by Oak Knoll Books, this great modern scholar of the book shows us why the book-jacket is inseparable from the material-book, its bibliographical importance, and the need to study and preserve them.

Jackets are, he writes, “a body of material that enriches publishing history, and thus cultural and intellectual history as well.” And yet, puzzlingly and disappointingly, book scholars and collectors have “paid little bibliographical attention to this prominent feature of modern book production”. (The jacket has been a sharper object of interest for the graphic artist — as achievements in design — than for the student of publishing). “The bibliographical importance of a jacket”, he goes on to say, “is not dependent on its artistic merits any more than the bibliographical significance of a book is related to its literary merit. Undistinguished jackets continue to be produced, and many jackets from earlier years…can hardly be considered examples of striking design. Yet they are all of interest to the historian of publishing…”

Book Jackets is strikingly illustrated with photographs of important pre-1901 jackets from Tanselle's own extensive rare collection, and the collection of other collectors and dealers. (A full page colour photograph of book dealer Tom Congalton's shelf of 19th century books with dust-jackets raises goose bumps: what a sight to see so many scarce items on one bookshelf). Even more impressively, appended at the end, is a descriptive list by Tanselle of 1, 800 examples of pre-1901 jackets in existence. (His collection of 19th century book-jackets is soon be placed at Yale's Beinecke Library). Tanselle, a prodigious bibliophile-scholar, was adjunct professor of English at Columbia University, the president of the Bibliographical Society of America, the Grolier Club, and the Society for Textual Scholarship.

Role of dealers

A chapter on the role of “dealers in the dust jacket story” interested me particularly. Tanselle profiles the odd book dealer who took an interest in collecting and selling jackets when it wasn't fashionable or profitable. In the 1970s, Ken Leach assembled the largest collection of 19th century jackets ever formed, a collection that was “10 years in the building.” When he dispersed it for sale, the lot, quite tellingly, didn't fetch much. (One item, titled Darley Six Illustrations (1848), had been labelled in the catalogue as “the earliest recorded American dust jacket”). The next significant dealer of early jackets was Wilder Books who, in 1995, put out a catalogue titled “Books in Rare Original Dust Jackets, 1882- 1923”. And just as important, the English dealer George Locke, who titled his catalogue, “Thirty Years of Dustwrappers 1884- 1914”.

Two contemporary dealers with a keen interest in early jackets that Tanselle singles out are Mark Godburn of The Bookmark and Congalton of Between the Covers. (Godburn is currently preparing to publish a book on the subject). The Age of Digital Text is very nearly upon us, and if the printed book should recede, isn't it possible that even jackets from the 20th century will some day become scarce? Tanselle's passionate and profoundly felt scholarly plea to study and preserve the book-jacket should provoke, inform and inspire not only collectors, dealers and book historians but the common reader as well to look at this century old detachable book covering with new fascination, insight and curiosity.

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Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 3:35:59 PM |

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