Dust jackets, can't shrug them off

Dust jackets, can't shrug them off

Second take

Dust jackets, can't shrug them off

A friend once told me in frustration, “I never know what to do with the dust jacket after I’ve bought a hardcover book. It keeps slipping and sliding when you read, and if I remove it so it doesn’t come in the way, then I don’t know where to put it away.”

My friend would probably be annoyed to know that today, a little cottage industry has grown around making facsimile dust jackets to order.

People who collect them are quite the opposite of this friend, who is hapless before them: they pay good money for dust jackets and find ingenious ways to catalogue and store them! How this works is, if you have a favourite book and would like to have the original jacket it was published in — either to keep as is or use it on your contemporary edition — then the exact jacket is printed in facsimile for you.

A book dealer I know, who also collects dust jackets, showed me a few that he had bought. They were nicely-got up, high-quality facsimile jackets. From Stoker’s Dracula to Burroughs’s Tarzan the Terrible to the holy grail of jackets, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Made from the original source, the material is digitally scanned “and meticulously restored on a pixel level many times more.”

It’s a little strange for us to think of a time when books had few or no dust jackets, but before 1820, dust jackets were uncommon. Books were issued in plain wrappers or had a hole cut into the jacket to reveal the title and the author. It was only with increasing competition in the book trade that publishers began using dust jackets as a way to market a book.

In April 2009, Michael Turner, head conservationist at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, uncovered a dust jacket dated 1829. It had been separated from its book, and Turner found it while sorting through an archive of book-trade ephemera. The book itself was hardly notable, some sort of British annual, a gift book.

In Thomas Tanselle’s 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 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.

They began as functional objects — protective devices and advertisements — and only much afterwards, in the 1920s, as decorative covers. The cloth bindings 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.

Tanselle notes, “The bibliographical importance of a jacket 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.”

There have been dealers and collectors of scarce, original book jackets. Ken Leach assembled the largest collection of 19th-century jackets ever formed, a collection that was “10 years in the building.” 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.

The oldest dust jackets in literature on record are probably for Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1876), Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) and Kipling’s The Second Jungle Book (1895). Two of them were issued in blue pictorial jackets. The first Jungle Book probably had no wrapper at all.

There are only 2 or 3 known copies in their dust jackets of The Wind in the Willows (1908) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), making them not only the scarcest jackets in the world, but the most-sought-after by collectors. A copy, if found, of any one of these books in their dust jackets would usually fetch a price of £ 80,000 (Rs 76 lakh) and upwards at an auction.

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