Book cover design dances to the marketing imperative. 100+ years ago, what that looked like was a bit different.

Public Domain Review shares some gorgeous examples of book design from over a century ago, when books were more than (hopefully great) writing in an appealing package—they were physical works of art in and of themselves.

Beautiful book cover design with two birds of prey facing off, wings spread to cover most of the image
Richard Bowdler Sharpe. Sketch-Book of British Birds. London- Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,1898
Lush cover design of woman in ancient robes and head wrap, playing lyre, set against plants with lush flowers, and a smoking tripod in the front
Antal Radó. Költők Albuma. Budapest- Robert Lampel, 1904

Many of these might also have been covered with dustjackets, but not only were they less likely to survive to our modern times, they might have been much blander versions of the actual book covers.

Throughout the nineteenth century, nearly all dust jackets were discarded at or soon after purchase. Many were probably discarded in bookstores as the books were put out for display, or when they were sold; there is evidence that this was common practice in England until World War I. The period from the 1820s to 1900 was a golden age for publishers’ decorative bookbinding, and most dust jackets were much plainer than the books they covered, often simply repeating the main elements of the binding decoration in black on cream or brown paper.
Red book cover design illustration of capsule-like rocket blasting out of a volcano up through the clouds towards the Moon
Jules Verne. From the Earth to the Moon. London, Sampson Low, Marston, Low, and Searle, 1873

Easily can I imagine discarding dustjackets to show off these covers on my bookshelves.

Embossed cover design illustration of two girls in large yellow hats and red coats facing a a sunrise or sunset over a green treelined field
Evelyn Sharp. Wymps. New York & London- John Lane, 1897

What strikes me is the flair added to what are mostly decidedly minimalist designs.

Minimalist book cover design of a small sun approached by a comet, with Earth far away
Ignatius Donnelly. Ragnarok- The Age of Fire and Gravel. New York, D. Appleton and Company, 1883

Some of these seem to anticipate the Art Deco era.

Diagrammatic cover design of gold Sun, the Earth, and the Moon against darkness
Sir Robert Ball. The Story of the Sun. London- Cassell and Co., 1910

Some of these cover designs are dreamlike.

Cover design of three lanterns with smoke snaking out of them, manifesting in angels
Andrew Lang. The Book of Dreams and Ghosts. London ; New York ; Bombay – Longmans, Green, 1897
Leather cover embossed with color illustration of fish, seaweed and a child swimming in the sea, with seagulls in circles added decoratively
Charles Kingsley. The Water Babies. London- Macmillan and Co., 1886
Cover design illustration of an elephant lifted by a giant balloon up among the stars and Moon
Frances Trego Montgomery. On a Lark to the Planets. Akron- The Saalfield Publishing Co., 1904

The book covers for darker tales are also fascinating.

Black cover design with embossed black curtains and a yellow hand pulling them back, with the title Too Curious in decorative yellow lettering
Edward J. Goodman. Too Curious. London; Guildford- Bentley & Son, 1888
Embossed cover design of a bat carrying a skull that has a green worm threaded through its eyes
Felix Schloemp. Das unheimliche Buch. Munich- Georg Mueller, 1914
Cover design of craggy cliff path leading up to a distant something backlit by the Moon
W. T. Horton & W.B. Yeats. A Book of Images. London- The Unicorn Press, 1898
Cover design that's almost pattern-like, with about 15 white sheep grazing on white flowers, watched over by a shepherd. All white images against dark teal bg
George Eliot. Scenes of Clerical Life. William Blackwood‎ & Sons, 1857
Beautiful cover design of blossom-covered plant against red background with sectioned patterns
C. Lockhart-Gordon. To the End. London- John F. Shaw and Co., 1898

More info, book scans, and download links for these books and many others are linked from the Public Domain Review post.

1 thought on “Beautiful book cover design in days of yore”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *