Last month, Mike posted about a recent gift of books from alumnus Peter Webb. I have cataloged them and they can be found via this search. Mike mentioned in passing that the gift included copies of some of Charles Eastman’s books in their original dust jackets:
Since dust jackets on hardcover books are common today, these may not seem all that exciting. But dust jackets from the early 1900s and before are quite rare, even in special collections libraries. See this recent post from the University of Virginia about a collection of 19th-century books in original dust jackets, donated by Tom Congalton.
Current research on the history of dust jackets agrees that “they are a phenomenon associated with, and resulting from, the introduction of publishers’ cloth in 1820 … It is natural that publishers should have thought of furnishing protective wrappings after they began issuing books in cloth-covered boards, for these casings (bindings) were more permanent and soon became more decorative than plain boards, and any means for keeping them in their original condition until they reached the hands of buyers would be to the publishers’ advantage.”¹
So publishers’ production and use of the dust jacket was driven by practical reasons, and became widespread. Today they are scarce because buyers in the 19th-century thought of dust jackets only as disposable packaging. Still, they are an important component to consider when studying the book as an artifact.
G. Thomas Tanselle, the expert in this subject area, has compiled a list of 1,888 surviving examples of dust jackets from prior to 1901 in his Book-Jackets: Their History Forms and Use. It is hoped that an online database may be created and built upon for further research.
Here are a few of the examples held by Amherst College:
Lastly, two examples from the 1930s, by which time publishers had long since figured out that placing graphics and advertising on paper dust jackets was much more economical than elaborately decorating cloth bindings.
¹ Tanselle, G. Thomas, Book-Jackets: Their History, Forms, and Use (Charlottesville, Va. : The Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 2011), 8-9. The book contains three essays originally published in 1971, 2006, and 2010. For a concise overview of the subject, Tanselle himself also recommends the chapter “Book-Jackets” in Anthony Rota’s Apart from the Text (New Castle, Del. : Oak Knoll Press, 1998) 124-141.