Admiring reviews of Peter Jackson’s First World War film They Shall Not Grow Old noted the astonishing immediacy and vitality of his application of colour to historical footage. Many also mentioned the climactic realisation among soldiers returning from the front at the war’s end that life had carried on without them. In other arenas, this divergence had already begun. In 1915, while young men in drab khaki uniforms and – this an unexpected touch in Jackson’s film – duck-egg-blue shirts were dying in their thousands in France, British publishers hit upon an inexpensive way of boosting sales. They began issuing books in attractive colour-printed dust jackets.
Before that date, the dust jacket as we know it – a single sheet wrapped around a case-bound book, with flaps tucked in at the front and back – was a colourless affair. As the name suggests, the dust jacket was to keep the book clean, to keep the shopper’s grubby fingers off the gilt-decorated cloth cover that lay beneath. Jackets were removed at the point of sale and tossed into a bin below the bookshop counter. The jacket of John Oxenham’s Bees in Amber, published by Methuen in 1913, spelled it out in rhyme: ‘This outer wrap is only meant/To keep my coat from detriment./Please take it off, and let me show/The better one I wear below.’
Early dust jackets were printed on cheap, disposable paper stock in pale hues – off-white, pale grey, buff or duck-egg blue. As a gesture towards design, publishers might replicate the gilt tooling from the book’s cloth cover in outline on the front panel of the jacket. Illustrations were generally simple