Monthly Archives: June 2018
Who today would consider buying a new paperback, where the cover had been replaced by a standard blank cover with the title and author written in by hand? And what bookshop would consider asking the publisher to replace the normal cover with a blank one so that they could write on it?
Yet that seems to be exactly what happened in the 19th and early 20th century with at least two booksellers and one publisher. I’m writing again about the Tauchnitz Editions, published in continental Europe for around 100 years from 1841. They were published in Leipzig and sold through a huge number of continental bookshops. The vast majority of these of course used the standard Tauchnitz paperback wrappers. But the Nicolaische Buchhandlung , and later the Kaufhaus des Westens (KDW), both in Berlin, opted for a different arrangement. Oddly both shops still exist today, which is not true of many bookshops from over 100 years ago, so perhaps it was a commercially successful idea.
For each of them, Tauchnitz used special wrappers with the name of the shop on, but blank spaces on the front and the spine, where they could write in the series number, title and author. I’m assuming it was Tauchnitz who used the special wrappers, and not the booksellers who stripped off the normal wrapper and rebound the books themselves?
The earlier bookstore to use handwritten wrappers was the Nicolaische Buchhandlung, roughly from the 1880s to around 1910. I have two examples in my own collection, pictured here, but there are multiple examples in other collections, including around 70 of them in a state collection in Berlin itself. Both of the examples I have are missing the half-title page at the front, which is unusual for paperback copies. That makes them difficult to date accurately, but may be evidence that suggests the original wrapper was removed and replaced, rather than the books being bound in the special wrapper from the start.
The wrappers for the Kaufhaus des Westens are known in only a single copy, post World War 1, but presumably there must have been others.
The question is why would booksellers do this? To my eyes the books with their scrawly handwriting look significantly less attractive than with the normal neatly printed Tauchnitz wrappers. The writing is not always easy to read, so it wouldn’t be easy for customers to scan them and decide quickly which books they might be interested in. That would be particularly true if the books were placed on shelves with only the spine showing, which would presumably be the usual position. There’s barely room on the spine to write in the title, so the writing is inevitably cramped and often almost illegible.
The advantage is perhaps that the books can carry advertising for the bookseller. In particular the back wrapper is used for bookseller advertising rather than the usual list of other titles in the series, which is really publisher advertising, although in the bookseller’s interest as well. But was it really worth it?
There are lots of people who collect crime fiction and many who research it and blog about it. There seem to be rather fewer these days who are interested in westerns, and less is written about western fiction, but it certainly still has many devotees. Even gangster novels and other specialist genres are well collected. So I suppose there must also be people who collect romantic fiction and are passionately interested, if that’s the right word, in the genre. I’ve never met any of them though, and prices of romantic novels in vintage paperbacks remain generally very low, so I doubt there can be very many collectors around.
All of which means that despite the prominence of the general Collins White Circle series over a period of almost 25 years, its sub-series covering romantic fiction has attracted little attention.
It was in any case a bit of an afterthought to the White Circle series. The Crime Club novels had first appeared in 1936, followed later that same year by the launch of western novels, numbered from 101, and in January 1937 by a mystery sub-series numbered from 201. The name ‘White Circle’ for the overall series started to appear about July 1937, although the use of a large white circle as the title panel was a unifying element in the branding long before then. Each genre though had its own colour and its own standard cover design as well as its own block of numbers.
When three volumes of Galsworthy’s ‘Forsyte Saga’ appeared in February 1937, it was obvious from their appearance that they were intended to be part of the White Circle series, although they were unnumbered and not obviously part of any sub-series or genre. They were followed in April / May by a group of six romance novels, numbered from 304 to 309, and with the listing of other novels at the back now including the Forsyte Saga novels as numbers 301 to 303.
So the ‘300 series’ now seemed to be established as a slightly odd combination of Galsworthy and Romance. Three further Forsyte Saga novels appeared in August / September 1937, oddly again unnumbered, but quickly identified in other volumes as 310 to 312. Then more Romance novels in early 1938 with numbering from 313 and from this point on, the 300 series of numbers is essentially reserved for romantic fiction. A sort of turquoisy blue was established as the colour for the genre, and a stylish lady’s head as the distinctive symbol in the bottom right of the cover. The series was clearly aimed at women readers and although the image looks a little quaint and demure to modern eyes, it must have been an aspirational look at the time. At first it appeared only on the dustwrappers and the covers of the books themselves were left plain.
The authors of the early novels included Renee Shann, Pamela Wynne (a pseudonym of Winifred Mary Scott), Betty Trask and Henry de Vere Stacpoole, each with several novels in the series. None of the names mean much to me and I don’t think they’re much remembered, although I see Betty Trask’s name is still attached to a fiction prize for young authors. It’s described as being established from money left in her will by the ‘reclusive author of over 30 romance novels’.
The list gradually extended up to volume 330 by the end of 1939 and continued well into the war years, reaching volume 359 by March 1942. There was one interloper – volume 321 in August 1938, was a special film tie-in edition of ‘A Yank at Oxford’ by A.P. Garland in a specially illustrated cover, but mostly the books followed a fairly standard format. The lady’s head on the dustwrapper was altered at some point in 1939 (making her look slightly older and with a less prominent nose?), the ‘White Circle’ branding was introduced, and the words ‘A love story’ added to the cover.
At least one of the two Philip Hughes novels in 1940 / 41 appeared with an alternative purple cover featuring a head and shoulders portrait of the author (a format more consistent with the later ‘500 series’ of volumes), but otherwise there was little change. In line with the rest of the series and most other paperbacks, dustwrappers disappeared from about 1940 and from that point on the illustration was carried on the front cover of the book itself.
Romantic novels did not re-appear with the other sub-series after the war and it was not until 1950 that the series started again in a rather different format. From here on they are still branded ‘A White Circle Pocket novel’ but they have pictorial covers and as a result look very different from other books in the series. The Penguin hegemony that had imposed non-illustrated covers on the market for any paperbacks with up-market pretensions, for 15 years by this point, was now starting to break down. Collins must have felt it was worth breaking away from it for romance novels, although perhaps oddly, they stuck with non-illustrated covers on westerns and other genres for another nine years – almost as long as Penguin themselves did.