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Judging a Book by Its Cover--Well, Dust Jacket

To some people they are nothing but a nuisance that impedes the reading of a book and should be discarded at the first opportunity. To collectors of modern first editions they are gold, often worth far more than the book they clothe. They are dust jackets, and they have an interesting history.

In the early days there were no dust jackets. Since books were sold without bindings there would have been nothing to wrap a jacket around. When you purchased a book you would get only the sewn sheets of the text block itself. There were usually a few blank leaves front and back to protect the text-a tradition that still lives in most modern books. You would then take the book to a binder to have it put into a proper binding. You could choose from some standard bindings, or specify your own design. The books of one person or family would often be bound to match, perhaps with the family's armorial crest incorporated into the design. These books were well made and beautiful, and a source of great pride. The trouble was that not many people could afford them.

Manufacturing processes changed and books began to be produced as finished products. The bindings were functional but cheaply made. Something was needed to protect them in transit between the publisher and the ultimate owner. Voila!-the dust jacket was born.

The earliest recorded dust jacket is from 1832. Any example from before about 1880 is quite uncommon, because they were meant to be thrown away. And not all books in that period were issued in dust jackets. By the turn of the century, however, dust jackets were standard. If you have a hardcover book published after 1900 it is fair to assume that it was originally issued in a dust jacket. Publishers had figured out that a dust jacket could also be a marketing tool, and striking artwork, blurbs from reviewers, and biographical information on the author began to appear. Still, dust jackets did not come to be seen as an integral part of the book until the 1920's, when collectors began to collect relatively recent first printings, or "modern firsts."

Since the books were newer and had been mass-produced, one copy was exactly like another in content and physical structure. Collectors therefore began to place a premium on condition as a means of recognizing the merits of one copy over another. And the ultimate in condition would be a pristine copy of a book still wrapped in the dust jacket as it came from the publisher. (Similarly, collectors of mass produced toys go crazy for Barbies still in the box, or Beanies with the tags still attached.) The dust jacket fixation stuck with collectors, and today the value of a jacket on a collectable book greatly outweighs the value of the book alone.

Suppose you have a first printing of "The Great Gatsby" in very good condition, but lacking its dust jacket. It is a nice book to have, worth probably $1,500. Now imagine you are at an auction with the chance to bid on an ex-library first printing of "Gatsby" in a dust jacket. The book has a lot of rubber stamping, ink notes and underlining, and some of the pages are falling out. Oh yes, and there is a lovely card pocket half torn off the inside back cover. But the jacket looks pretty good, having been wrapped in mylar by the library at some point. The book is of no value, but what are you willing to bid to get the dust jacket --$10, $100, $1,000? Higher, my friend. Much higher. Your "nice" $1,500 book wrapped in its original dust jacket becomes a show-stopping $25,000 book. The difference being a piece of paper originally designed to be thrown away.

Granted, that is a dramatic example of the importance which can attach to a dust jacket. Nevertheless the principle applies to almost all other books originally issued in dust jackets. You find book buyers on both ends of the spectrum. Some will carefully pick through the stack at the bookstore and select the one copy with the perfect jacket, and then fanatically protect it from any wear or wrinkle ever after. Others care only for what is inside the book, and can't wait to get rid of that cumbersome, annoying "packaging" wrapped around it. To each his own. And yet the image of that flapper in 1925, throwing away the dust jacket from her new copy of "Gatsby," lingers…

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