A Short History of the Book Cover – Part 1

The Alcuin Awards, which celebrate the finest book design in the country, take place on April 4. They got us thinking: when did the old adage, “don’t judge a book by its cover” begin—and what is the history of such an important part of the industry today?

Join us for a brief foray into the history of these designs…

Antiquity – 14th Century
For protection’s sake: For centuries, books were treasured objects (even more so than bibliophiles feel about them today). Primarily used for religious texts, they were reserved for religious orders and treated with reverence. Early book covers reflected this: painstaking hand-illustrations, gold leaf, precious jewels, even carving and engraving adorned each book cover.


1450 – 1550
Gutenberg changes everything: We know the Gutenberg press changed everything in publishing (and much else besides), and that includes covers. A century after its invention, around 1550 AD, there were more than 200 million books in circulation. Covers, as a necessity, became less grand, and—for the first time—clasps were removed from covers. They were all still hardcovers, designed for durability.

1550 – 1820
The book meets personal branding: As the number of books in circulation rapidly increases, various customs change to make books easier to recognize and read. Title pages on books began to appear as early as 1520, so they could be easily recognized—with the title, author and bookstore (i.e. publisher) listed. From then until the mid-1800s, books were primarily bought uncovered! A purchased book was delivered wrapped in paper. The buyer then took it to a specialist, who would bind it according to their client’s budget and taste.

1820 – Present Day
Industrialisation includes books: The rapid expansion of the Industrial revolution quickly included the publishing industry, too. As technology allowed for mass production of books for the first time, the world of books transformed to an extent not seen since Gutenberg. Books were produced with their covers, too, leading the way for competing publishers to utilize these to sell their wares.

It’s from here onwards that the modern history of the book cover truly began.

We’ll explore what happened next in our April edition of Books & Ideas.


Zoe Grams