A Brief History of the Dust Jacket

Trash or treasure?

Slip cover, dust cover, or dust jacket — whatever you call it, and whether you’re the kind to trash them or treasure them — have you ever wondered what purpose they serve and when they first appeared? If you have, then read on!

In Europe, the first printed books were typically sold without covers! Printers were not also bookbinders, so if you wanted a cover, you’d take your naked book (a collection of sewn or loose quires) to your local bookbinder.

Books were often sold unbound until the advent of cloth binding in about 1820 (cloth or fabric glued to stiff paper board), the same century in which book binding was finally mechanized.

Completely random example of a modern dust jacket

Clothing for books

The first known dust jackets were produced by German binderies in the 1760s, long before their appearance in Britain and the US.1 The oldest surviving dust jacket outside of Germany was discovered at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library for a book with a vulnerable silk binding, printed in 1830.

Book jacket, 1876. Image courtesy of Princeton University Library
Various 19th-century bookbinding tools & machines. source

Some of the earliest book jackets wrapped around the entire book (like wrapping paper) and were secured with wax. They were typically plain and typographic, and their main purpose was to protect the book during transit. But the book jacket’s function quickly evolved from protection to publicity. Examples of illustrated or pictorial book jackets appeared early on but really took off in the 1920s, boosted by recent advances in color printing.

from The Illustrated Dust Jacket: 1920–1970

Belly bands

In Japan, they’re called 本の帯 (hon no obi), literally a book obi (an obi is a broad sash worn with traditional Japanese clothing like the yukata and kimono). The elegance of the Japanese nomenclature contrasts with the English ‘belly band’. This diminutive ‘dust jacket’ is typically used for publicity and advertising.

Belly band for my copy of Bushido, 1935
Plain book jackets in Japan

Did you know…?

Plain paper or decorative dust jackets are offered free of charge in Japanese bookstores. Japanese, when reading in public, typically use such book jackets as a privacy measure.

Further reading:

The Illustrated Dust Jacket, 1920–1970
– M Salisbury

19th-Century Dust-Jackets
– M Godburn

The Look of the Book: Jackets…
– Mendelsund, et al

What do you do with dust jackets? Trash them or treasure them? Let me know in the comments.

  1. Early Bindery Dust Jackets – Mark Godburn ↩︎