EDMUND EVANS set up as a wood engraver in 1847 in England, and in 1852 he developed a process of engraving in three printings, one block giving the outline of the illustration in brown, and two other blocks adding color tints. This led to the first pictorial cover in color, the wrappered edition of Letters Left at the Pastry Cook's by Horace Mayhew, in 1853. This was printed in blue and red on white unglazed paper. Evans next had the idea of using yellow glazed paper over boards as the background for the illustration, a printing effect that had sensational effects, and a style that was so popular that some books were bound in cloth to look exactly like a Yellowback.
Victorian readers were familiar with paperbacks, usually priced at 12 1/2 pence, or 25 cents. Now they also had Yellowbacks priced at 50 cents and known as "cheap editions" compared to cloth-covered editions. Yellowbacks were an innovation in British publishing and were universally popular. The new binding was made from fiberboard covered with glazed paper and an illustration printed in 2,3, and 4 colors. The first copies measured 6.5" by 4.25". The titles were usually fiction and almost always had an advertisement for Pear's soap or Fry's Cocoa on the back cover. Sold in railway bookstalls to passengers waiting to reach their destinations, they were cheap and easily identifiable.
Many titles were reprints of popular books, but the type was reset so the quality of the text was sharp and clear. But not all were reprints. The first British translation of Pushkin's The Queen of Spades, and Twain's The Innocents at Home and Roughing It, as well as several titles by Bret Harte, were all true British first editions.
George Routledge was the foremost publisher of Yellowbacks which he issued in the "Railway Library" series. The series began in 1848, and by 1899, 1277 titles had been published. Unfortunately, by 1870 the overall quality had begun to deteriorate. The binding was flimsy, the plates were worn from previous cloth editions producing a pale, uneven quality on the page, and the paper on which they were printed was cheap.
What had started out as an innovation in publishing eventually became a brand of inferior quality. Yellowbacks disappeared by the end of the nineteenth century, with one exception. The publisher Chatto & Windus continued to reissue them as late as 1922, and their list of Anthony Trollope titles were for sale as Yellowbacks through January, 1915. The once sensational cover illustrations lived on, nonetheless, and were used as the covers for the new paperbacks which were sold for 6 pence (about 12 cents).
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