We’re embracing the summer heat by highlighting our steamiest pulp-paperback book covers. Pulp fiction is typically associated with crime, romance, adventure, mystery, and science fiction genres, and the eye-catching covers are now recognized as a distinctive mid-twentieth century art form. Often touting racy titles, the covers of crime and romance books in particular were intended to both entertain and titillate, seducing would-be readers into an impulse purchase from the newsstand or book rack at the drugstore.

Pulp paperback cover art had its origins in fiction magazines, called “Pulps” due to the cheap pulp paper they were printed on. Frank Munsey’s 1896 iteration of The Argosy is generally considered the first pulp magazine, and the launch of genre publications like Street & Smith’s Detective Story Magazine in 1915 continued to build the popularity of pulps. The 1920s brought magazines like Weird Tales, focusing on fantasy and horror fiction, and Amazing Stories, the first magazine solely devoted to science fiction. Having reached peak popularity in the 1920s to the 1940s, pulp magazines served as an affordable source of entertainment and escape during the economic hardships of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II. The 1940s saw a decline in pulp magazines with the rise of mass-market-paperbacks.

Robert de Graff’s 1939 launch of Pocket Books, the first American line of mass-market-paperbacks, transformed the way publishers approached distribution. Moving beyond subscription services and traditional bookstores, de Graff saw an opportunity to reach the masses while they went about their daily lives. He placed his books at newsstands and on wire racks conveniently located where readers would be enticed into making a twenty-five cent impulse purchase while sitting at a lunch counter, shopping at the drugstore, or waiting for a train. Upon seeing the immediate success of de Graff’s innovative distribution model for Pocket Books, others followed suit and launched competing companies, such as Avon (1941), Popular Library (1942), Dell (1943), Bantam (1945), and the New American Library, which published the Signet imprint (1948).

By targeting a mass audience, not necessarily devoted readers who regularly sought out bookstores and serious literature, pulp paperback publishers democratized the culture around books. An advertisement in The New York Times placed by de Graff to announce the launch of Pocket Books on June 19, 1939 stated: “These Pocket Books are designed to fit both the tempo of our times and the needs of New Yorkers. They’re as handy as a pencil, as modern and convenient as a portable radio–and as good-looking.” As the advertisement seems to suggest, the cover is just as important, if not more important, than the story within. Publishers competed to lure readers with increasingly racy and spicy cover art, which often featured suggestive scenes with seductive women at the forefront.

(Reference: “Pulp’s Big Moment” by Louis Menand, published in The New Yorker, December 29, 2014)

Highlights from Our Pulp Collection

Click to browse the collection of more than 100 Pulp illustrations. Be sure to click “Add Genre to Your Want List” at the top of the page in order to stay informed of our newly-acquired Pulp works through automated email alerts.