The Golden Age of Book Covers



11th December 2018
I wonder if you enjoy old book covers as much as I do? They take us back to a more leisurely time, a golden age perhaps in which aesthetic considerations and plain 'good taste' were a little higher on the agenda.

The Victorians and Edwardians were marvellous in this respect. Publishers clearly expected their readers to treasure the covers of their books every bit as much as the content inside. And although books began to be mass-produced in these times, the makers still valued subtlety and style. Often embossed or stamped with metal foil to reflect the appearance of much-earlier handcrafted items, they were affordable but also beautiful.
ornate book cover to novel Ivanhoe
Early edition of Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.
Here, then, are some fabulous examples from the golden age of book cover design. Where possible, I  have tried to credit the artist responsible - though I can't guarantee that the year of first publication and the precise cover designs will match. There are lots of variations at large.

A Gothic Classic

antique book cover showing gold-leaf image of a bat on black background
The Vampyre
The Vampyre by John William Polidori (Sherwood, Neely & Jones, London, 1819) is dramatic but also minimalist. It takes a lot of courage for a publisher to leave that much blank space on a cover. But how effective! With the two vignettes at the top forming a Gothic arch, it conveys the message of what the reader might expect without too much fuss - while the gold motif of the winged creature of the night suggests something of real quality might await the reader inside.
book cover, dark background with black poppy motiv and gold lettering

Symmetry and elegance

ornate book cover with embossed effect
The Golden Key
The Golden Key by Henry van Dyke, (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1926). A collection of twelve short stories. The cover art is among many fantastic designs of this period by Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944). Armstrong was also a writer and botanist, which might well explain the naturalistic touches to her work, such as the wheat ears, the leaves and hearts and the delightful foliage.

Similarly with this one, another of her creations ...
naturalistic, floral design antique book cover, leaves, stems etc
The Rossettis
The Rossettis by Elisabeth Luther Cary, (Putnam, New York & London, 1900).
linking banner with red text on black background

Circles and rectangles

old book cover with navy blue background and ornate lettering
Freedom in the Cave
The oddly titled 'Freedom in the Cave' by Franz Hoffmann (Lamplighter Books edition, original 1850) was a 19th-century story with a moral message. A clever and skilful use of rectangles and circles combine on the exterior to produce a beautifully proportioned whole.

Art Nouveau

richly ornamented book cover with gold-leaf effect
The Friendship of Art
By the turn of the 19th Century, the wonderful swirling motifs of the Art Nouveau movement in the arts was in full cry. Green and gold were popular colours, and always stunning in combination. The cover to 'The Friendship of Art' by Bliss Carman,  (L.C. Page, Boston 1904) is no exception. Described as a book of essays, thoughts, moods and fancies. It looks really inviting.

Less is more

old mustard-coloured book cover with red lettering and border
Dracula
Sometimes, less really is more. This very simple design for an early edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula proves the point. Expectations were clearly modest for this title at the start, as was the cover. But the simplicity is, again, most powerful. A clever macabre touch is the lettering and the border somehow being joined up, like a trail of blood. It successfully raises questions and curiosity. Who exactly is this Dracula chap? And what has he been up to?

The romance of nature

old book cover with lots of ornate design
Creatures of the Night
The romance with which Victorian writers regarded nature is still alive and well in this Edwardian-era vision. Creatures of the Night by Alfred Wellesley Rees ( J. Murray, London, 1905), a natural history book of nocturnal wild life in Britain, the cover shows owls, foxes, stoats, rabbits, hedgehogs and otters among the many animals that inhabit the countryside during the hours of darkness. They all seem to be getting along nicely with one another. The reader is going to be taken on a pleasant educational journey.

Victorian detective mystery

fine gold lettering against dark blue background on Victorian book cover
The Moonstone
An early edition of Wilkie Collins's Victorian classic shows the finest of script and scroll work. The novel has been described as the first detective story, and the reader can anticipate an intricate and demanding plot-line from the start. This is a book likely to require your full attention.

Subtlety and Pastel

antique book cover with lilac background and gold lettering
Threads of Grey and Gold
Threads of Grey and Gold by Myrtle Reed ( G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1913). A book of poems and brief biographical notes on famous people. The subtle pastel colours are cleverly blended, so subtle in fact that even the gold lettering seems subdued by the background. Harmonious and utterly gorgeous.

No-nonsense gold on black background

book cover with black background and gold lettering
The Complete Herbalist
In contrast to the previous example, here with The Complete Herbalist, by Prof. O. Phelps Brown (New Jersey c. 1866) the prospective reader can be in no doubt of the impact of gold. The black background sets it aglow. Knowledge that is pure gold emerging from the darkness seems to be the message. A real nugget of wisdom.

Adventure

orange lettering and palm motif on cover of old book
Treasure Island
This very early edition of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island tells so much that the reader needs to know by a very simple motif of a palm tree upon a tiny island. The richly coloured lettering in the same bright colour is likewise bold and attention-grabbing.

Simplicity and Boldness

grey tone book cover with illustration of old locomotive at the top
Chasing an Iron Horse
Still on the theme of adventure, Chasing an Iron Horse, by Edward Robins. (George W. Jacobs & Co, 1902). This is a pretty obscure early work of juvenile fiction set around the US Civil War. The understated, worn-look cover surely deserves enormous credit for conveying a sense of antiquity, adventure and wonder with just a few subtle brushstrokes.

Aspirational

elaborate and symmetrical design on an old book cover
Millionaire Households
Millionaire Households and their Domestic Economy, Mary Elizabeth Carter. (D. Appleton & Company, New York, 1903). Another stunning example of the artwork of Margaret Armstrong. The peacocks and grape vines form a kind of coat of arms, suggesting that those who read this book could definitely be richer for the experience - or at least feel that way.

Influenced by Beardsley

book cover shows gold figures facing outwards, full length against dark background
The Romance of Zion Chapel
The Romance of Zion Chapel by Richard Le Gallienne (John Lane, The Bodley Head, London and New York, 1898). This outstanding artwork by Will H. Bradley could be equated favourably to the drawings of celebrated English artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). But here they have the added attraction of a glowing gold-leaf effect. The quirky kind of typeface is very much of the times, also.

Poets

antique cover to book, green with gold lettering and profile
John Milton
Poets are widely represented in books of this era. They were sometimes issued in collections of several volumes or intended as gift sets. The Minor Poems of John Milton (George Bell & Sons, 1898 - design by Alfred Garth Jones) has a seriously sombre look that sets the tone for what is inside. I love the sturdy-looking 'M' in the typeface, which is unusual, almost architectural. A book which has the weight of history upon its shoulders.

Whodunits

book cover with bright colours and sword motif
The Romance of Zion Chapel
From a prolific author of the early part of the 20th Century. The Clue by Carolyn Wells (A.L. Burt Company, New York, 1909 - design by Frances Rogers) is an early example of the 'whodunit' genre. What a celebration of colour!

Conclusion


From the Victorian, art nouveau and later art deco golden ages of publishing, book covers were not only beautifully designed but were, in many respects, works of art in their own right.  They opened up a world of possibilities for their readers just by holding them in their hands. They got them guessing. They exercised the imagination and took the viewer on a journey every bit as intriguing as the content itself.
old book cover of Keats's poetry
Watch them again on video
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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