The Jacket Racket: Vintage Book Cover Design

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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The first book or dust jacket protected bindings from the corrosive effects of the elements. Later it was used to advertise the contents of a book and was routinely discarded before it was entombed on the bookshelf. Interior book designers and cover artists rarely commingled but rather acted like offensive and defensive football squads, although more often like opposing combatants.

During the 1920s and 1930s jacket illustrations were frequently based on a vivid but not always exact descriptions, rendered in a realistic or stylized manner with contempo hand lettering, like those below culled from a salesman’s sample book. The sole purpose of the jacket was to attract and hook a reader, so the artists took many liberties with fact and while this might have been false advertising, the disparity between the author’s intent and the artist’s interpretation was rarely questioned—such was the book jacket racket.

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The old saying “you can’t tell a book by its cover,” is valid enough, nonetheless the jacket’s ultimate allure was more important than silly old plot details—in some cases the jacket was indeed the best part of the book (i.e. Rasputin below). Nonetheless, these jackets from an arguably more innocent (or perhaps more corrupt) period of literary marketing have poster-like appeal. The lettering is sometimes raw but totally apt. The sophisticated designs today draw on the past, but these jackets were the real deal. Like them or not, they don’t skimp on the allure.

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For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, one of the many Heller titles available at