Back to Top

85: Boni Paper Books, part I

November 21, 2011

Two weekends ago I got a chance to take a short trip to Pittsburgh to get a much needed mini-vacation and visit with fellow Justseeds’ members Bec, Icky, Mary, and Shaun. Most people who know me have come to the understanding that I can’t go anywhere without a quick scan of the local used bookstores, and Icky and Shaun obliged. In the basement of one shop I found a great mini-collection of old Boni Paper Books.
Boni Paper Books where a brief early experiment in American paperback book publishing. Charles and Albert Boni, New York publishers of reputable hardback books and co-founders of the Modern Library book series, began this experiment in 1929. They teamed up with designer (and Leftist) Rockwell Kent to create a series of well-made and inexpensive paperback books, a novelty at the time (by comparison, Penguin Books—the first large scale paperback publisher in the UK—wasn’t founded by Allen Lane until 1935). The books were primarily distributed as a book of the month club, with each new titled published and mailed out to subscribers (who had paid a $5 annual charge) on the 25th of the month.
Although populist, the authors tended to be of the modernist slant, and each book’s cover had an image by a different modernist illustrator, slotted into Kent’s overall design. I had read about Boni Paper Books, but I had never seen one in person until Icky stumbled upon one in that basement filled with used paperback fiction. That started my hunt for other titles, and I finally dug out eight, which turned out to be more than half of the first fifteen titles published over the course of 1929 and 1930. (Boni Paper Books were published from 1929-1938. I’ve been trying to find a total number of title, I saw the number 86 somewhere….) All share a nice internal design by Kent, and although old and fragile, are in great shape considering they are 80 years old!
I’m going to go through the ones I found in the order they were published. Also, the spines are pretty beat up and I wasn’t able to get good scans of them, so for each book I’ve got the back cover on the left, and the front cover on the right, so they look like if you opened the up page side down, and cut the spines out.
Below is Takashi Ohta and Margaret Sperry’s The Golden Wind (published September 25, 1929). Although officially the first of the Boni Paper Books, it is actually the second title they published, the first being Thornton Wolder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which was a test book for the entire series, published in May 1929. I believe The Golden Wind is the only book without a unique cover, it’s decorative bowed trees, dancing birds, and windswept books shared with the cover for Wolder’s test book, although in a different color scheme. Rockwell Kent did the illustration, and along with the simple serifed type-treatment, it gives the book a relaxed but extremely classy look.

Not only do each of these books have impressive covers, but they each have inside endpapers as well. The endpapers below are from The Golden Wind, but I am unsure if they are unique to this book. I assume they were designed by Rockwell Kent, but are unattributed, and in some ways they seem more like a work by Kent’s German contemporary Frans Massereel—at least the sunflower climbing up the building on the right has a definite Massereel-like quality.

The next book I found, and the fifth in the series, is Deneys Reitz’s Commando (January 25, 1930), a tale from the Boer War in Southern Africa. The cover is a great 2 color illustration, again by Rockwell Kent. You can see that the tree on the front has a very similar quality to the ones on the cover of The Golden Wind. I actually prefer the back cover, the simplicity of the mountains and sky with the back flat foreground is so well done.

Commando has it’s own unique endpapers, below, with a hand-drawn map of Southern Africa.

Next is the 7th book in the series, Leo Perutz’s The Master of the Day of Judgment (March 25, 1930). Like those above, this one also has a Rockwell Kent cover, and one of a style much more readily seen as Kent’s. The blockprinted figure is simple yet extremely expressive, just check out the detail in the toes! The red title also jumps off the black and white illustration.

The Master of the Day of Judgment and all the later books I picked up share the same endpapers, so the creation of original images for each title must have stopped early on. They are all different colored versions of the below, an evolved version of the Kent image used on the cover of The Golden Wind.

The fourth book I found, and the 9th in the series, is Darrell Figgis’s The Return of the Hero (May 25, 1930), which is an updating of Irish folk stories. Once again the wraps are by Rockwell Kent. I love the titling and the lined clouds, and the front figure is pretty great too, with the lines in the hair and beard, and bold shadows in the clothing. Not a huge fan of the figures in the back, the comic style is a bit flip, and doesn’t seem to go with the otherwise weighty imagery. Although maybe that’s the point, but it just doesn’t hold together for me. The back cover on the other hand is fabulous, there is something strange and wondrous in the single block of stone floating out of the abstracted ground created by the horizontal bars.

Below is the final page spread of a later book, Sun Way, which shows the whole series of books and the order they were published. Also notice the graphic on the bottom right, a nice Boni logo/embellishment by Kent. Next week I’ll look at four more Boni Paper Books, including Sun Way.

Culture & Media

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Posts by Josh MacPhee

More By Josh MacPhee