Straight Jackets: the Art of the Book Jacket University of Otago Straight Jackets: the art of the book jacket


Prior to World War I, the book jacket's main function was to protect the cloth and heavily embossed covers of the books. As protective wrappers only, they were throwaways, often discarded by readers at the point of sale, and by institutions as they were processed and placed on the shelves.

During the two world wars, this function was transformed into a marketing one when the publishing houses recognized the infinite promotional and decorative possibilities of the book jacket. Its potential, however, was slow in being realized and it was only when the use of well-known artists proved their aesthetic value as well as boosting sales, that the book jacket as a marketing 'hard-sell idea' became established.

The book jacket with its blurb, the author information and the illustrative cover have been 'dis-covered' and they are now very collectible. They can be seen as historical documents, shedding light on publishers and publishing trends, as well as evoking the dominant feelings and images of time past. In addition, since many important artists have designed book-jackets, e.g. Walter Crane, Mervyn Peake, and N.C. Wyeth, and since many are noteworthy examples of artistic design, especially by such notable designers as Berthold Wolpe, Edward Bawden, and Robert Gibbings, there has emerged a considerable interest in them as a significant medium of graphic art.

The general neglect of book jackets has resulted in a scarcity of early examples. However, the Brasch Collection contains a wonderful array of examples from British publishers of the 1940s to 1960s, while the Hocken Library has some examples from early New Zealand publishers. A selection from these two collections is on display. In addition, there is the superb Henry Shaw Jacket Collection of the 1920s from Special Collections, Auckland City Libraries. Shaw was a collector with vision, collecting them at a time when they were regarded as ephemeral. Finally, Longacre, a local Dunedin publisher, have submitted a number of their more current jackets. These have been supplemented by the cover design work of local illustrator David Elliot.

This exhibition offers an overview of the early history of the book jacket. It also highlights the design and artistic aspects of book jacket production, and importantly, raises the viewer's consciousness on what is now considered an integral component of the book. It is no longer ephemeral; long live the book jacket.

Thanks to Les O'Neill, Anthropology Department, University of Otago.


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