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The Appeal of an Antique Book Cover

By Kathryn Pritchett
May 11, 2021

Writer and director Donna Swajeski is drawn to the beautiful book covers created by master book designers over a century ago. Dazzled by the charming book vignettes she shares on instagram, we wanted to know more about her collection and what makes these covers so appealing. Here’s what she had to say

Why did you decide to feature antique books in an instagram account?

I had a successful career as a network TV Head Writer, living in NYC, until 8 years ago. When my mother became ill, I moved home to Delaware to run a family theatre. The Delaware Children’s Theatre. The 350 seat Victorian theatre, housed in a former Women’s Club built in 1898, was saved from demolition by my parents. It’s the only surviving public structure built by one of the first Women Architects, Minerva Parker Nichols, and is on the Historic Register.  As Artistic Director, I directed shows and wrote fairy tale musicals there until the pandemic hit. But when the theatre was closed, and I couldn’t stage shows, I turned to IG. That’s when I started my book account @donnaswaj, staging my antique books. They became my stars instead of actors.

When did you start to collect vintage books?

The Princess and the Goblin

I’ve collected antique books ever since I was hooked on Dickens at age 12, my favorite writer. I gravitated to Victorian and Art Nouveau books because, I like drama, and books from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s are from the Golden Age of Book Design. The covers are glorious, inspired by the stylized nature designs of the Arts and Crafts Movement and the Art Nouveau era.  Featuring intricate vines, leaves, entwining tendrils, tulip and iris shapes, dragon-flies – all are delightfully layered with magical details. Some of the best designers come from the Glasgow school, which was more a philosophy of ideals rather than a geographic movement. Among the notables were Talwin Morris, Margaret Armstrong, Ethel Larcombe, and Archie Campbell who designed one of my favorite books, George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. 

How do you determine what to add to your collection?

The real jackpot with a vintage book is one with a design on the spine as well as the cover. They don’t have to match but they should feel connected. Those are like finding gold. My specialty is Antique Fairy Tales, anything magical. And I use the book posts to also prompt a story or personal anecdote, to keep my hand in as a writer, too. The main ones I collect are Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books. Between 1889 and 1913, Lang edited fairy and folk tales in a series of 25 books; the most important ones being the 12 Fairy Books, each a different color, and illustrated by H. J. Ford. Only a first edition Grey, Lilac and Orange still elude me, so they’re top of my quest list. 

A stack of red and pink books with sought-after illustrated spines
Violet Fairy Book

Where do you find the books featured on your account?

Mostly, I buy from indie bookstores or from IG or eBay. You want to always be sure there’s no moldy or over-perfumed smell (from someone trying to cover the moldy smell), cover sun fade or water damage. I don’t mind some distressing because these books are over 100 years old, so a little wear and tear is only natural. Booksellers are very obliging if you ask condition questions and I always try to get a picture of the cover.  

How important is a book’s cover?

Covers are very important to me because they’re not just eye candy. Nor are they simply frivolous dressing.  They are the overture. They should start the book’s story. A good cover is what hooks me since it sets the mood and tone. Covers can be real works of art and the book designers of the Victorian and Art Nouveau period, to me, are unsung heroes whose names should be as familiar as Dickens and Bronte. My favorite cover is Andrew Lang’s Violet Fairy Book. With a troop of swirling fairies, almost in geometric form, and the sense of play and joy evoked, it is the best example of a cover that is practically waving me over to read the book.

There’s also this beautiful Art Nouveau cover for Madame Butterfly. Simple, dramatic and irresistible. 

Madame Butterfly
Kathryn Pritchett
Written by Kathryn Pritchett

Kathryn Pritchett writes about strong women forged in the American West. To interact with her and the other Paper Lantern Writers, join us in our Facebook group SHINE, on Instagram, and Twitter.

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