Early album covers

Aged paper going brown, with sheet music hand written on it

Antique sheet music © iStockphoto.com/rackermann

Many years before album covers, sheet music explored the idea of using cover illustrations to capture interest in the music inside. During the 19th century the space given over to illustrations gradually expanded to the whole of the front cover, and the advent of colour lithography enabled designers to produce imaginative designs. These covers tended to echo the conventions of later album art as they were generally thematic illustrations, but gradually photographs of star performers began to be included, and during the first half of the 20th century these became the predominant form. Assisted by its attractive appearance, sheet music was extremely popular for a long period, with many titles selling hundreds of thousands of copies. As the first musical product to develop the connection between packaging, sales, and the use of images and illustrations, it laid out the ground that record albums would subsequently exploit to the full.

faded, slightly tattered old plain paper record sleeve without any text or images printed on it

Vintage record sleeve © iStockphoto.com/Stefan Klein

The majority of early sound recordings were marketed by record companies in plain paper sleeves without any kind of linked visual representation. The idea of decorating the packaging was present at an early stage - photographs of singers appeared on the exteriors of boxes containing cylinders produced by the Edison companies, for example, and there were many examples of companies printing pictures of performers on paper sleeves (see Laing 2003, 297). But the concept of sleeve artwork was mainly limited to the form of generic sleeves with simple graphic representations, rather than covers created for an individual recording. Thus sleeves produced in the 1930s (sometimes with leather side bindings) for children's music, orchestral works, and so on, were designed to house any record within each genre (see for example the covers collected on the LP cover lover website).

An important influence on subsequent record cover designs was the work of Alex Steinweiss who was appointed artistic director of Columbia Records in 1939 and went on to create over 2000 sleeve designs during the next 35 years. Steinweiss's distinctive visual style first appeared on packaging for the company's classical 78 rpm releases, using a multicoloured, geometric and stylised approach influenced by European poster design; moreover, he claims to have produced the first LP covers in 1948.

Illustration of this type was the dominant form in the early period of album design, but the use of photographic imagery became very widespread during the 1950s. The album format was initially targeted at an adult audience and the different idioms (jazz, big band, easy listening, classical) all developed distinct visual conventions. Sleeves for light orchestral and easy listening, aimed at the male adult market, typically featured photographic images depicting elements of an aspirational lifestyle such as cocktail parties, the 'batchelor pad', exotic locations and glamorous female models. These images underlined the supposedly sophisticated nature of the music. The visual images used to package easy listening were in keeping with its marketing as mood music and pointed to an emerging consumer culture in which the idea of lifestyle became important in marketing consumer goods.

Photographic images on front covers also served to reinforce a strong image for a particular performer, a convention that has been a staple of sleeve design ever since. In some instances, these star images were so strong that record companies released records with covers that relied entirely upon images of the artist. For instance, as Keir Keightley has observed, the artist's name does not appear on the cover of Frank Sinatra's 1954 album 'Swing Easy'. Instead, an image of Sinatra himself is accompanied only by the album title, thereby reinforcing the instantly recognisable star image of the artist to a contemporary audience.

In the 1950s, too, the jazz label Blue Note mirrored its individual musical policy with a distinctive visual style. Blue Note's record sleeves were designed by Reid Miles, a graphic designer who had been instrumental in setting the graphic agenda for the lifestyle magazine Esquire. Miles's designs were simple and striking, usually combining a moody black and white picture of the artist with bold blocks of colour and sans-serif typeface. These album covers were a major contribution to the creation of a distinctive identity for the Blue Note label and have come to be regarded as classics of graphic design of the period.

These early record covers (known as 'wraparound' or 'flip back') tended to be constructed in two parts; a laminated front cover (often printed in colour) wrapped around a non-laminated piece of card which was either plain or had simple black and white print. Developments in printing and packaging technologies in the 1960s led to the introduction of fully laminated sleeves, which were not only less likely to discolour, but also increased the possibilities of where artwork could be printed, thereby significantly altering the conventions of the record sleeve.