The magnificent early age of book covers

When books became truly mass-marketed in the 19th century, the cover suddenly took on a new role — it had to sell the book, setting it apart from others crowding this weird new marketplace.

Publishers were aided by new bookmaking tech of the age, which allowed the covers to be printed — which produced a flurry of innovation in color and texture processes.

The upshot: Graphic designers got to work, producing some of the most gorgeous book covers we've ever seen. The Public Domain Review picked 32 of their favorites from this year period — 1820 to 1914 — and they're breathtaking.

As they write:

Inspired by rising literacy rates and advancing technologies, the nineteenth century saw the book transform from a largely hand-made object to a mass-produced product. In this new environment the book cover took on added importance: it was no longer merely a functional protection for the pages but instead became a key platform through which to communicate and sell the book. Prior to this covers had — bar a smattering of highly bespoke one-off creations (e.g. embroidered covers for personal libraries) — mostly been plain leather bound affairs. From the 1820s, with the rise of mechanical bookbinding, these leather covers of old gave way to new cloth coverings which, in addition to being inexpensive, were now also printable. A wide variety of cover printing techniques were employed over the decades: from embossing to gilt to multi-colour lithography. A totally new artistic space was opened up. As you can see in our highlights below it was one in which illustrators and designers flourished, producing a range of covers as eclectic in aesthetic approach as the myriad contents they fronted.

You can see them all at the Public Domain Review's web site, but here are a few of my faves — though it was hard to pick from this bouquet of gorgeousness …