In Molière’s language, it is often said that appearances can be deceiving, and this is similarly expressed in the English saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Despite this, first impressions are important and the cover of a book can play a significant role in determining whether it is chosen to be read. In modern times, the cover has become a key marketing tool and serves as the packaging for literature. However, the evolution of book cover design shows how they have evolved from being purely functional objects used to protect manuscripts to becoming objects of consumption in their own right, inspiring the work of many graphic designers over the years.

3rd Century to 1860

The book as we know it today has its roots in the codex, which emerged as early as the 3rd century as a way of folding and assembling papyrus rolls (volumen) from antiquity. The development of the codex marked a significant shift in the way that written works were presented and protected. Initially, book covers were quite ornate and featured precious stone inlays, but it would take many centuries and several wars before the development of polychrome printing techniques would allow for more colorful and intricate cover designs.

The Treasure Book

Evolution of Book Cover Design - The Treasure Book
Evolution of Book Cover Design – The Treasure Book

Before the 1800s, books were considered to be valuable objects for two reasons: the information they contained and their physical form. During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, most books contained sacred texts and were reserved for monks, who were often the only ones who could read them. The handwritten lines of text were often adorned with gold illuminations, and the covers were works of art in their own right, featuring hand-engraved or embossed bindings, precious stones, ivory, silk, clasps, embroidery, leather, and gold and silver threads.

The Printing Revolution (1450)

The printing revolution occurred in the mid-15th century and had a significant impact on the production and distribution of books. Prior to the printing revolution, books were produced by hand, with each line of text written and illuminated by hand. This made books costly and time-consuming to produce, and they were only available to a small group of wealthy individuals. The printing revolution changed this by introducing the use of printing presses, which allowed books to be produced more quickly and inexpensively.

To Judge a Book by Its Cover

To Judge a Book by Its Cover
To Judge a Book by Its Cover

Before the modern book as we know it today was developed, early books were bound using wooden plates pressed between two pieces of fabric or leather, which were attached to the codex (the folded sheets of paper). These bindings served to protect the scriptures and keep the book closed when not in use. Metal or leather clasps were often used to secure the book, but these went out of fashion in the late 15th century and were replaced by strings. In the 16th century, the modern book emerged, with a hard cover, a smaller format, and no clasps, making it easier to carry.

1860 to 1935

Book covers have undergone many significant changes since the introduction of color printing in the 1860s, influenced by advances in technology and cultural trends. Over the years, covers have served both aesthetic and artistic purposes, and have been shaped by the technical progress and crises of the time. This is the second article in a series examining the evolution of book covers from the past to the present day, highlighting some of the most significant revolutions in design.

The Low-Cost of the Book (around 1840)

Evolution of Book Cover Design - The Low-Cost of the Book (around 1840)
Evolution of Book Cover Design – The Low-Cost of the Book (around 1840)

The mid-19th century saw the introduction of illustrations in books through the use of techniques such as wood engraving and lithography, as well as photogravure and halftone printing. The invention of chromolithography in 1860 made it possible to print in multiple colors, leading to the emergence of “paperbacks” or “yellowbacks” in Great Britain, which were inexpensive books printed without frills and in a smaller format.

These books were popular with the new, less affluent readership that emerged because of, the industrial revolution, which made it easier for people to access education and travel by train. Yellowbacks could be found at every train station and were printed entirely on paper, without a hard cover. The yellowed covers that give yellowbacks their name are made of poor quality wood pulp, which gives them that yellow color.

The Color Cover

The Color Cover
The Color Cover

As the demand for more affordable books increased, artists also began to use book covers as a medium for artistic expression. Between 1860 and 1880, there was a shift from simple, symmetrical monochrome designs to a “golden age” of colorful and innovative illustrations. During this time, book covers became an important artistic medium and a way to showcase the content of the book, with the dual purpose of making it stand out and appealing to readers. It was also fashionable to give books as gifts during this time.

Illustrators and Japan: Technique and Influence

Evolution of Book Cover Design - Illustrators and Japan: Technique and Influence
Evolution of Book Cover Design – Illustrators and Japan: Technique and Influence

The late 1800s and early 1900s were a golden age for illustrated magazines, as publishers recognized the value of using images to sell their products. Illustrators such as Alfons Mucha and G. Wharton Edwards became well-known and highly respected in their field. This period also saw the publication of beloved illustrated works like Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter and the anthropomorphic characters created by T.S. Sullivant, which would later inspire Walt Disney. These works were often featured in satirical and humorous magazines like Puck, Judge, and Life in the United States.

1935 to 1970

After World War I, book covers began to be made from paper jackets rather than cloth. This change was driven by economic constraints and led to the development of the paperback revolution. Penguin Editions played a key role in this revolution, and the design of book covers has continued to evolve, reflecting the social norms and values of different countries and eras. In this article, we will explore the history of book covers in England and the United States, including the rise of paperbacks in the 1950s, the portrayal of women on book covers, the early use of photography and abstraction, and more. In a future article, we will delve into the unique characteristics of French book cover design.

Penguins in Your Pocket (1935)

Penguins in your pocket (1935)
Penguins in your pocket (1935)

During the interwar period, advances in printing technology and changing attitudes towards literature led to the development of paperbacks, which made books more affordable and accessible to a wider range of people. Publishers such as Penguin Editions played a key role in this transition, which saw the move away from cardboard covers in favor of simple, soft paper covers. This shift also marked a change in the quality of the manuscripts being published, as well as the balance between price and quality in the book market. This was a significant revolution in the publishing industry.

1937: Incubator, Pelicans and Special Edition

Evolution of Book Cover Design - 1937: Incubator, Pelicans and Special Edition
Evolution of Book Cover Design – 1937: Incubator, Pelicans and Special Edition

In 1937, Allen Lane of Penguin Editions introduced the “Penguincubator,” a vending machine that dispensed pocket-sized books for six pence each. The machine was installed in a busy street in London and, according to a small note under a photograph of the machine, some clever individuals discovered that they could manipulate the buttons to receive more books than they paid for. Lane hoped that further testing would make the machine resistant to this type of exploitation.

During this time, Europe was in the midst of an arms race and political tensions were high, with Mussolini in Italy, fascism in Spain, and Hitler in Germany. In response, Penguin Editions commissioned authors to write books that addressed the geopolitical situation and offered cultural works to broaden their selection of paperbacks. The Pelican series was a special educational line of books, with the first volume titled “Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.” These books covered subjects such as science, history, archaeology, and literature, and were aimed at students and other individuals interested in learning about these topics. In addition, Penguin Editions also created the “A Penguin Special” series, which focused on more political, social, and contemporary issues.

Illustration, Glamour and Housewives (1930 – 1950)

Illustration, Glamour and Housewives (1930 - 1950)
Illustration, Glamour and Housewives (1930 – 1950)

During the 1930s and for over two decades afterward, glamour and illustration were highly valued. This was the era of popular illustrated works like Babar (1931) and Snow-White by Walt Disney (1934), and artists were often employed to create book decorations and movie posters. Illustrations were also widely used in magazines and advertising, with highly realistic drawings depicting modern life in all its splendor.

Birth of graphic design (1945)

Evolution of Book Cover Design - Birth of graphic design (1945)
Evolution of Book Cover Design – Birth of graphic design (1945)

From the 1940s onward, illustrators working in advertising had a specific role to play and a message to convey through their work. This marked the beginning of modern graphic design, in which designers experimented with characters and layout to create effective visuals. In 1950, the Alliance Graphique Internationale was founded in Basel to promote the profession of graphic design. In France, Massin played a key role in shaping the profession of artistic director, but we will discuss this further in a future article.

From 1960 to the Present Day

The emergence of the “Poche” (paperback) publishing house in France in 1953 had a significant impact on the literary scene and made books more widely available. The traditional, sober design of covers from publisher Gallimard was challenged by the influence of American design, leading to a greater freedom in the graphic design of book covers. Scorpio Editions, in particular, caused controversy with its provocative covers, which drew the ire of those who believed in traditional values. In this, we will examine the unique characteristics of French publishing houses, the distinction between Poche and Folio books, the influence of graphic designers such as Massin and Faucheux, and the resurgence of the “coffee table book” format with young publishing houses.

The Gallimard Dynasty

The Gallimard Dynasty
The Gallimard Dynasty

In France, the color white is associated with quality and sophistication. The NRF/Gallimard publishing house, founded in 1919, is known as the “white collection” due to its simple and elegant design. NRF/Gallimard has published works by literary figures such as Camus, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Caillois, Aragon, Queneau, and Malraux, and has played a major role in shaping the French publishing industry. The house has been home to many authors, intellectuals, and members of the bourgeoisie in the Saint Germain district and has served as a model for other prestigious publishing houses.

The NRF’s white and sober graphic design dates back to 1910, when André Gide sought to “clean up literature” with this aesthetic. The collection became known as Librairie Gallimard in 1919. An example of the NRF’s forward-thinking design can be seen in the series of Marcel Proust’s novels published between 1918 and 1927, which stand out for their lack of flourishes and illustrations compared to other books of the time.

The White and its Disciples

Evolution of Book Cover Design - The White and its Disciples
Evolution of Book Cover Design – The White and its Disciples

Other major French publishing houses have followed the lead of Gallimard and adopted similar graphic codes, often by adding their own elements and variations. According to historian François Vignale, Gallimard serves as a reference for all other French publishing houses. Below is a brief overview of the evolution of French book cover design, with thanks to Laure Leroy for her assistance.

Albin Michel, Grasset, and Miduit editions have all drawn inspiration from Gallimard’s beige and red color scheme, sometimes incorporating elements such as a blue net frame or red lettering for the title. Seuil editions feature an oversized red frame, while the Cahiers Rouges collection from Grasset has a black frame on a red background. This edition adds a blindfolded eye to the cover in the year 2000 as a way to emphasize the content without resorting to more populist visual illustrations.

Faucheux, or The Return of the Book-Object

Faucheux, or The Return of the Book-Object
Faucheux, or The Return of the Book-Object

In 1946, following the Second World War, Pierre Faucheux became the first artistic director of the French Book Club, a library of noteworthy books inspired by Anglo-Saxon and German clubs like The American Book of the Month (established in 1936). Books were sent directly from the publisher to readers through a subscription service, bypassing booksellers. Each book was a creative medium that allowed Grim Reaper to experiment with layout, printing materials, and new typographical rules.

During the 30 prosperous years following the Second World War, publishers began to recognize the value of graphic design as a way to make their books stand out. The French Book Club, which brought together talented graphic designers such as Massin (who later became the artistic director of Folio, as mentioned below), introduced the role of artistic director to France.

These books were a departure from the traditional, sober style of classic literature, and Faucheux sought to give each book a unique graphic identity. He believed in creating books that were not only intellectually valuable, but also visually striking and distinct. Unlike traditional publishing collections, club books had no common theme and each one was unique in its combination of content and form. Faucheux produced over 700 titles on his own.

Today

Evolution of Book Cover Design - Today
Evolution of Book Cover Design – Today

In today’s mass consumer society, it is often sensational or instantly appealing covers that catch our attention. However, the literary counterculture persists despite financial challenges and the threat of digital technology. The book industry continues to withstand these challenges and even makes a comeback, becoming stronger in the process. Laure Leroy notes that “there is no better way to save the book than to make real books.”

Conclusion

The growth of the internet has further influenced the evolution of book cover design. While it may be presented in a two-dimensional format online, it is still just as crucial to the success of a book. In fact, it may be even more important now as readers are more likely to see the front cover before the spine of a book, making it a powerful tool for attracting a large online audience.

Also Read: The History of the Novel: From Its Origins to the Present