top of page


The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


Never Mind The Book, How’s The Cover?

Books As Literature

“It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate which awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? And the successful books are but the successes of a season. Heaven knows what pains the author has been at, what bitter experiences he has endured and what heartache suffered, to give some chance reader a few hours’ relaxation or to while away the tedium of a journey. And if I may judge from the reviews, many of these books are well and carefully written; much thought has gone to their composition; to some even has been given the anxious labour of a lifetime. The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and, indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.”

The Moon And Sixpence

Books In Context

Literary merit aside, though, it is often hard to do the sensible thing and throw these long forgotten, apparently worthless objects, into the dumpster in the alley – if only because they have managed to make it so far. Take, for instance, this volume found in the back row of a triple-stacked shelf the other day:

Little Brother of the Rich

It must have been an unexpectedly hot item in its day: the first printing was August 24th, and there were reprintings August 27th, September 3rd, September 7th and this one September 16th. Moreover, Grosset & Dunlap, the reprint house, ran to at least seven printings in 1908 and 1909.

But hot in 1908 is one thing – hot in 2001 is quite another. Search in vain for the name of Joseph Medill Patterson (1879 – 1946) among the list of Nobel Laureates in subsequent decades. The first few pages aren’t bad, but this is clearly not the stuff of which Great American Novels are made. A quick check on some of the book lists, too, confirms the suspicion: True, an optimistic seller has listed it for $125 on the grounds that it is a Rideout novel (ie named in Walter B Rideout’s The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954, pub. Harvard University Press, 1956); but there are 15 other copies (excluding the Grosset & Dunlaps) listed, including another fifth printing at $5 and quite a number around $12 – not really enough incentive to go to all the work of photographing it and putting it up on Popula.

As it happens, a little research reveals some good reasons (other than the hoarding instinct) to keep the book. For one thing, Joseph Medill Patterson, it turns out, is not a totally obscure name, after all. His grandfather was founder of the Chicago Tribune. He was in his youth a prominent socialist (hence, perhaps, the Rideout reference) and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives; he founded the New York Illustrated Daily News, in imitation of English tabloids he had seen during service in the first World War; and though he missed the Nobel he did win a Pulitzer for editorials supporting FDR’s second re-election. Hence, though his name is not usually mentioned in the same breath as those of Mark Twain, Henry James, or even Nathanael West, it does lend enough incidental interest to provide an excuse not to chuck out the book.

Alma-Tadema/ Ladies Home Journal kitsch about it. The artist, it is noted within, is someone called Hazel Martyn Trudeau (1887 – 1935). Off to the web again, and we discover a couple more interesting tidbits. Hazel Martyn Trudeau was widowed by the Canadian Trudeau at an early age and, apart from being something of a painter herself, married in 1909 to a somewhat well known Irish artist from Belfast,John Lavery (1856 – 1941). His portrait of her – a story in itself, since it also served at various times as a portrait of three other women, including Sarah Bernhardt — is one of his better known works. The two of them, Sir John and Lady Lavery as they became, apparently lent their London house in 1921 to Michael Collins and others of an Irish delegation who came to negotiate the Anglo-Irish treaty which shortly thereafter precipitated the Civil War in Ireland. The Irish Free State government which emerged from that war invited Lavery, as a token of their appreciation for his help, to paint a portrait of his wife to be used on the Irish pound note, which it was for the next 50 years. The face of the painter of the frontispiece was known to millions of people.

Hence, despite its apparent obscurity, the book has all kinds of unexpected historical associations.

Books As Objets d’Art

This is all very interesting, of course. But the real reason for keeping the book, what really stays the dumping hand, so to speak, is the cover. The strange mixed fonts of the white lettered title, obscured behind the thin black cord of the money bag, and, stranger still, by a gold halo – why the halo? Not to mention the grasping white paws beneath, one hand rather fleshy with oddly blunt fingers, the other smaller, skinnier and even more deformed. On second looks, are they grasping, or are they throwing the moneybag, like a basketball? The whole palette of gold, black and white blocked into the dark blue grosgrain just too characteristic of the era. Who could resist this oddity, who throw out this feast for the eyes? The book is a work of art.

The realization quickly sends one back to the three-deep shelf in search of more pretty covers, to the library in search of more information about book covers in this period, and, naturally, to the web in search of same.

A Little History

Modern bookbinding could be said to have begun in the 1830s. Up until that time, books were generally produced without covers or in plain paper wrappers. Either the bookseller, or the final buyer of the book, would have it bound to his liking by a specialist in the art. With the advent of new bookbinding technology, however, it became economically feasible for publishers to mass-produce books fully bound between hard boards. The books could be covered in paper or cloth and decorated. With this “case binding”, the spine of the binding is completely separate from the back of the text block, which greatly simplifies the whole process of decorating the exterior binding of the book. (For a fuller explanation, click here)

Yellow Backs (they were block-printed in three or four colors on a glazed yellow paper) thrived beginning in the 1840s (some say early 1850s), but they were gradually superseded when the art of truly decorative mass-produced cloth bindings began in around 1880, and had more or less disappeared by 1900.

Generally, cloth covers were decorated using a technique known as “blocking”. Blocking is similar to other “intaglio” or “relief” printing methods in which the design is raised from the surface, in this case on a metal “block”. (“Blocking” is an English term – in America one would generally call it “stamping”). The color is laid over the cloth board and the block, usually after being heated, is impressed on it, using a block press, to stamp the color into the board. Gilt and “blind stamping” (impressing without using any color) were used in the 1830s, with other colors generally coming later. Obviously, designs with more than one color require blocking as many times as there are colors to be impressed. By the time of the true golden age of decorative covers (say, 1905 – 1915), there could be as many as six different blocking operations in the production of one multi-colored cover.

In the library in downtown Los Angeles, the best book available on the subject is The Twentieth Century Book, Its Illustration and Design, by John Lewis, published in this country by Reinhold Publishing, NY, 1967. (Grab a copy if you see one going cheap – it’ll cost you upwards of $40 on the web, maybe a tad less for the 1984 revised and updated edition). The roots of twentieth century illustration, typography and cover art, according to Lewis, can mostly be traced either to Art Nouveau or to the private press movement most prominently exemplified by the extraordinarily influential arts & crafts school of William Morris (1834 – 1896) and his Kelmscott Press in London. These two influences were, on the surface at least, totally opposed to each other. Art Nouveau professes to be anti-historical, completely “new art” – even though, in fact, it is clearly heavily influenced by oriental art, particularly 19th century Japanese prints beloved of such exponents as James McNeil Whistler. The William Morris school, on the other hand, is deliberately medieval, rejecting the art of the Renaissance and going back to earlier roots, emphasizing the painstaking care and craftsmanship of medieval work and the predilection for quality, also, in materials. According to Lewis, the art of the book, from the 1880s when art nouveau began to flourish until well into the twentieth century, was completely bound up, so to speak, in these two remarkably persistent threads.

Sarah Wyman Whitman

Sarah Whitman designed several hundred covers for the Boston publisher, Houghton, Mifflin, beginning in the early 1880s. Her designs incorporated elements of Morris as well as of Art Nouveau. Shown here is a design for Oliver Wendell Holmes’sDorothy Q Together With A Ballad Of The Boston Tea Party & Grandmother’s Story Of Bunker Hill Battle: With Illustrations by Howard Pyle, published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1893. The cover is charcoal grey cloth, and the lettering and decoration are blocked in silver.

Anybody Need Ideas For A Thesis?

Relative to the material on typography, layout and illustration, though, there isn’t a lot of information on the subject of cover design from this period. As Lewis himself noted, “The history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century illustrated cover is still to be written”.

One of the main problems in researching such a hypothetical work, though, would be to identify cover artists. In the case of books and magazines, the illustrators are often explicitly credited in the text; or at least have legibly signed their work and can thus, albeit with some effort on the part of the researcher, be identified. The identity of cover artists, though, is much more problematic.

Unless the artist has unobtrusively introduced initials into the design, there is almost no way to make an attribution. Hence, even in Lewis’s well researched and well documented book, there is very little about the cover artists in this roughly 1890 – 1925 period. The web is almost equally uninformative (though there is an excellent site-in-progress on German bookbindings at the University of Wisconsin).

Evidently, there is an opportunity here for anyone taken with the subject to do a bit of primary research. Nobody seems to know very much about these covers, and, to judge by the prices of many of them, nobody is really collecting them – at least, some are collected for their literary or historical interest, but very few people seem to be collecting them for their artistic interest or as relics of this extraordinarily rich period of bookbinding history.

Which takes us back to the source – the books themselves. The following is a sampling, shown in roughly chronological order, from our shelf of forgotten early 20th century English-language hardcovers. Note that there is nothing particular or special about these covers individually, except in that they illustrate some of the features of covers of the time. There are doubtless far better examples around.

There is a whole series of George Barr McCutcheon novels with illustrated covers published by Grosset & Dunlap. Grosset & Dunlap, as well as the other well known New York reprint publisher, A L Burt, tend to be rather despised by book collectors generally, in much the same way and for the same reasons as Book Club editions are today: they are rarely, if ever, true first editions; print runs tended to be large, so that scarcity often isn’t a factor; and in many cases the materials and production are of lesser quality. (There are notable exceptions, like A L Burt’s 1918 Son of Tarzan, which goes for $30,000 – $40,000: check the web price before you throw it out!) It is worth noting here, though, that both these publishers produced some very worthy illustrated covers in this roughly 1900 – 1925 period. It isn’t inconceivable that they might one day stumble into respectability.

Days Off, and other digressions

As for the cover artist on this book, there is no direct attribution in the text, but the front bears the inconspicuous initials, MA, for Margaret Armstrong (1867 – 1944), who was prolific in designing similar covers for Scribner’s (as well as Dodd, Putnam and Harper) from the 1890s through the early years of the 20th century and has been held largely responsible for the “genteel” look of many such made-for-posterity books in this period. Perhaps because she inscribed her characteristic monogram on her designs, she is almost alone among cover artists in having escaped anonymity during this golden age of cover design. This talented woman also achieved some fame as a mystery writer, publishing three whodunits in her waning years.

Soldiers of Fortune

Excuse Me

The Westerners

Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley

Catty Atkins, Financier

As in so many other spheres of life (some may say: alas!), the key may well be in the bags of gold. By the mid-twenties, almost every book wore a colorful dustjacket. Early dustjackets had been relatively drab, but by this time printing technology had reached the point where full-color jackets were, presumably, much cheaper to produce than elaborately blocked cloth-covered boards. They could compete visually on the bookstand with the highly designed and gorgeously colored magazine covers of the day. Not only that, there was more scope for advertising on a dust-jacket than on a cloth-covered board: some choice words on the flaps could be used to sell the book – or other books by the same publisher; and there was, similarly, space on the back. Hence, economics dictated at the very least a more modest expenditure of resources on what had become, so to speak, the underwear of the book.

Not that there weren’t some spectacular cover designs to come – more of that, perhaps, another time. But it is clear from the most casual inspection of those dusty shelves that, with the possible exception — true in all decades of the twentieth century — of children’s books, as well as some fantasy/science fiction and adventure titles, from about the mid-twenties onward, illustration and decoration of the cover generally took a back seat.

The moral for the likes of Willie Somerset Maugham are clear: when you plan the marketing campaign for your book, make sure your publisher hooks you up with a good cover artist. You may end up unread, but at least you have a shot at being collected.


What to collect in book covers? Well, as we’ve seen in this brief survey, the field is pretty much wide open. Even those few artists who are well known are not out of the range of most pockets. For instance, there are several copies on the web of the Sarah Wyman Whitman Oliver Wendell Holmes cover (see above), the most expensive of which is $105, with a Near Fine copy offered at $60 and half a dozen Very Goods in the $15 to $50 range. True, you can spend $20,000 to snap up in one swoop a collection of 300 bindings by Margaret Armstrong, but you could assemble a decent collection piece by piece yourself for a lot less than that, starting, perhaps, with the Scribner’s Van Dyke (Van who?) collection.

Perhaps the best part about this whole field, though, is the conspicuous lack of knowledge and easily available information on the subject. For example, who did all those Grosset & Dunlap and A L Burt covers? Any collector could have a lot of fun finding out, and maybe in the process rescue some poor undeserving writers from obscurity.

Some Interesting Links not in the text above:

God Bless the Library of Congress, and all those who pay for her.




bottom of page