A former colleague once came into my office, beaming and hiding something behind her back, and said, “I’ve found something you are going to want.”
We had chatted on several occasions about rare book collecting, and she had been inquisitive about spotting first printings. I had given her some basic Book Collecting 101 tips. I guessed that she had discovered a first edition and wanted to share her find.
Revealing the book, she proudly declared, “I paid 25 cents for it, but they sell on eBay for $500.”
I instantly recognized it as an early printing of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. To be fair, the title was easy to discern; it said Gone with the Wind in bold letters on the spine. I knew it was an early printing from its boards, or cover. I also knew that there were a ton of printings made of this novel; it may very well be a first edition, but it probably wasn’t going to be a first printing.
I flipped to the copyright page, expecting to give her some bad news, but she was absolutely correct. “See?” she said, pointing. “It says, ‘Copyright 1936.’ Then at the bottom it says, ‘Printed 1936,’ with no other print dates listed.”
Again, she was right. She had done her research and she had found a first printing of Gone with the Wind. I was happy for her.
“So?” she asked. “What’s it worth?”
And there is the rub. She had in fact found a 1936 first printing of an American classic and purchased it for a quarter at a tag sale. It was also true that sellers on eBay were asking (and sometimes getting) $500 for their copies. But the book she held in front of me was hardly worth what she was hoping, and it had nothing at all to do with its condition.
“Well,” I said, hating to state the obvious. “It doesn’t have a dust jacket.”
It should be noted here that the dust jacket, as we know it, has been around for a relatively short period of time. Hand scribed books in all forms (stone, wood, papyrus, etc.) have been around for millennia. The printing press dates back to the mid-15th century, when Gutenberg printed his Bible and effectively created mass communication. But the dust jacket didn’t make an appearance until the early 1800’s, and even then they served a very different purpose.
Buying a book in the early 19th century wasn’t at all like today. You purchased a volume unbound, at which point you would hire your own bookbinder to bind it and trim it in the material, color, and style of your choosing. Dust jackets in this era were strictly for protection of the book’s folios and had little if any text, let alone pictures, reviews, and advertisements.
Dust jackets as we know them today arrived at the turn of the 20th century. Many booksellers simply threw them away, preferring to see the actual spine of the book on their shelves unadulterated by this lowly paper sheath.
I told my friend a story which I have often repeated. While it is extreme, it illustrates the value of dust jackets like no other story I know.
A few years earlier, I watched an online auction take place at which hundreds of important books were sold, each making my mouth water more than the last. During that auction two first editions and first printings of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby were sold. Both were in very good if not fine condition, but one had a dust jacket and the other did not. The one without the jacket sold for what at the time was the standard, I believe just north of $4,000. The one with the jacket sold for more than $62,000.
By my calculation that puts the value of that dust jacket at around $58,000. To make it more ludicrous, the dust jacket had a hole the size of a quarter torn from its spine.
So why would an oft-maligned dust jacket send the price soaring so high? The answer lies in both the whims of the market and the importance of the literary work to be sure, but the timing of its printing is also a major factor. The Great Gatsby was published in 1925, right at the time when dust jackets were becoming artforms themselves while at the same time countless booksellers were throwing them away. And so this jacket was extremely rare, to the tune of $58,000.
Which brought me around to raining all over my friend’s parade. Gone with the Wind was published a little more than a decade after The Great Gatsby, and the market demands that the dust jacket should be present if a seller expects top dollar.
She looked at me in defeat. I didn’t even want to make a token offer of cash for fear of further insulting her.
“Eh!” she said suddenly, plopping the unsheathed book on my desk. “You can have it. I never liked that movie anyway.”
This is the second article in a short series on rare book collecting. The first article appeared in the June 2019 issue of Aspire.