Reprint: 40 Years of Blurb by L. T. Sardone

Sometime during 1913, Gelett Burgess, U.S author and illustrator, coined the word "blurb" to describe a short commendatory notice of a book. Eleven years later the word was admitted to the "Oxford English Dictionary."

The origin of the term is hard to trace, but the slang expert, Eric Partridge, is inclined to the view that it may be a corrupted combination of "splurge" and "blah.'

Whatever its origin, the fact remains that the blurb, plus its closest associate, the book jacket, has become a major selling medium in contemporary literature.

The dust-jacket idea seems to have originated with London booksellers somewhere about 1833, but it was not until the 1890s that Australian publishers began using detachable book jackets, on the back of which were advertised other publications.

One such volume was a book of Paterson's, "The Man from (Snowy River and Other Verses," published in 1895 by Angus and Robertson. The brown jacket shows a sketch of The Man himself astride his horse, drawn by Frank P. Mahony.  

Although from then on an increasing number of Australian books carried dust-jackets, the development in this country was gradual. World War I was a major obstacle to progress.

In the early 1920s, American publishers began to pay special attention to dust-jackets, buying the work of leading artists and finding a standard place for the blurb on the inside flap.

The work of U.S. artist designer McKnight Kauffer was particularly in demand.

Kauffer appears to have been largely responsible for the growth of the dust-jacket collecting craze. For several years during the 1920s people in Australia and other countries bought books, primarily (and sometimes exclusively) with the idea of mounting the jackets in albums.

The trend of the Australian jacket closely followed the English tradition for many years, for local publishers rarely felt inclined to risk cash on elaborate jacket blocks.

However, with Australia's ever increasing interest in reading, particularly since World War II Australian publishers have begun to pay closer attention to jackets, striving -- in the case of novels -- for a happy medium between the more conservative English design and the rather sensational accent of some American houses.

Now, it is not unusual for an Australian publication to carry a varnished four-colour jacket with half-tone photograph, attractive lettering and surrounds. Blocks for such a jacket, at the present time, cost about £100 each.

Among the earliest artists associated with Australian book-jackets were Frank Mahony -- best remembered for his work on Lawson's "While The Billy Boils," Paterson's verse, and Ethel Pedley's "Dot And The Kangaroo" -- and George Lambert, who did a fine illustration for Ogilvie's "Fair Girls And Grey Horses," in 1902.

Norman Lindsay, of course, did the jacket for his well-known classic, "The. Magic Pudding," and he, with Percy Leason, did jacketing and covers for Lawson's works. Hal Gye did jackets for the works of C. J. Dennis, among which were "Glugs of Gosh," "The Sentimental Bloke," "Ginger Mick," and, in association with David Low (now of the "Manchester Guardian"), "The Bloke And Doreen."

Edgar A. Holloway did considerable jacketing here during the 1920s and 1930s, and more recently the work of Francis Broadhurst, William Constable, Adrian Feint and Virgil Reilly is note-worthy.

With no other form of literature is the jacket of more importance than in connection with children's books. Nowhere, either, is it more essential that author, illustrator and publisher work in close co-operation.

Here the book-jacket really comes into its own, for a child's first impression is rated highly, and the cover will be seen before the book's contents.    

Illustrators responsible for the jackets of some best-selling Australian juveniles are Rhys Williams ("Verity, of Sydney Town") and Pixie O'Harris ("Pixie O'Harris's Fairy Tales''). The   aboriginal jacket illustrations of Elizabeth Durack, "The Magic Trumpet" and others, have also been well received.

Worthy of special mention, too, are the jackets executed by Margaret Senior, Walter Cunningham and John Singleton in a nature series published by John Sands. One of these, "The Story of Karrawingi the Emu," by Leslie Rees, and an historical cavalcade, "The Australia Book," by Eve Pownall, won Australian Book Society prizes in their respective years of publication.

However, Australian book jacketing (and, for that matter, blurb-writing) has not been notable for its overall excellence. Many garish and shoddy productions have found their way into our bookshops.

They have lent point to the claim of some book collectors that dust-jackets are an irrelevancy, which could well be sacrificed so that books could be sold more cheaply.  

But the standard has been steadily improved in recent years.

Although no great attention might be given to an exhibition of Australian bookjackets, there seems no reason why one should not be attempted.

An annual exhibition of book jackets has been sponsored by the Book Jacket Designers' Guild, Inc., in America, since 1948. For some years past, too, the American Institute of Graphic Arts has helped to improve U.S. standards of jacketing by holding exhibitions in New York City titled "Fifty Best Book Jackets of the Year."

Something along these lines might go a long way towards stimulating interest in book jacket illustration and design here-with improvements in the standards of both.

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1953

[Thanks to the National Library of Australia's newspaper digitisation project for this piece.]

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on October 27, 2010 8:10 AM.

Australian Bookcovers #231 - The Island in the Mind by Rodney Hall was the previous entry in this blog.

Australian Books to Film #52 - The High Commissioner is the next entry in this blog.

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