Sunday, May 15, 2016

IMPRESSIVE IMPRINTS: Harper Sealed Mystery, 1929 - 1934

For a while it seemed almost a requirement that an American publisher create a catchy name along with a clever logo for an imprint that would be the marketing tool for the mystery books they published. Harper and Brothers jumped on the bandwagon early and probably did so after the fast selling, very popular Crime Club imprint put out by their rival Doubleday Doran.  But Harper had a clever gimmick to go along with their imprint. They called their imprint "A Harper Sealed Mystery" and they were literally sealed.

These books had the last fifty or so pages sealed with a tissue paper certificate, either pale yellow or light blue in color. If the reader managed to resist the temptation of discovering "Whodunnit?" and not open the seal he could return the book to the bookseller for a full refund. I have no idea if anyone ever tried to get their money back. In the only other article online about this imprint Victor Berch wrote this about the free book offer: "In its first few months, Harper boasted of the fact that of 60,000 copies sold, only three had been returned." Remarkably, I've come across used copies with the seal still intact. Presumably in those cases, the previous owner never read the book or the book was an unread remainder. I own a few of these books with portions of the seal (front, back or both) still bound inside. But I found only one book in which the entire seal was carefully removed and laid in. Here it is from Poison in Jest (1930) by John Dickson Carr. Click to enlarge so you can read exactly how the money back guarantee worked. By cutting out the certificate on the back half of the seal and saving them up the reader was able to get a free book.


Most of the Harper Sealed Mysteries I own have no DJs.  So I resorted to finding some examples of the DJ art from other sellers. Of those shown below only three come from my library: , The Trial of Scotland Yard (1930), There's Been Murder Done (1931) and The Street of Serpents (1934). Where I found remnants of the original seals I've notated the pages that were closed off. Enjoy!



The Havering Plot (Feb 1, 1929)
The very first Harper Sealed Mystery


The Secret of Sea-Dream House (Feb 15, 1929)
including a rare promtional wrapper

The Secret of Sea-Dream House w/o the wrapper

Only Seven Were Hanged (May 1, 1929)
Murder at the Inn (Nov. 7, 1929)
UK title: The Mendip Mystery
Murder on the Bridge (July 1, 1930)

The Trial of Scotland Yard (Aug 14, 1930)
The Trial of Scotland Yard seal (front half)
Sealed pages 269-303
There's Been Murder Done (Feb 5, 1931)
Rear flap of the DJ
shown at left
No DJ, I know. Standard design on the boards
The Lost Gallows (March 4, 1931)
The Lost Gallows seal (front half)
Sealed pages 293-344

Dead Man's Secret (Jan. 7, 1931)
Murder at the World's Fair (May 23, 1933)

The Ticker Tape Murder ( May 5, 1930)
The Mystery of the Flaming Hut (May 4, 1932)

The Street of Serpents (July 5, 1934),  UK title: Mr. BobadilSealed pages 351-256

Front half of seal
Rear half of seal
Letters of Marque (April 4, 1934)
The Family Burial Murders (Nov 8, 1934)
Last official Harper Sealed Mystery

from Death Turns the Tables (Dec 22, 1941)
Sealed pages 193-257

According to Victor Berch's article at Mystery*File and based on information from several notable mystery book collectors there were seven unofficial books for which Harper & Brothers revived the gimmick of the sealed mystery. Only the seal from Death Turns the Tables published in 1941 followed the original format with "The Sporting Offer" on the front. The back was blank, however, since the free book offer ended in 1934 when the imprint was discontinued. The other six books, published between 1950 and 1964, had variations of the seal's design and ad copy. Remarkably, all seven of the books still offered the readers their money back if they returned the book with seal intact.

19 comments:

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post. Great to see these classic covers and what a great gimmick! I guess back then publishers were a little more inventive in their promotional efforts. If anyone did that nowadays no doubt some book collectors would buy brand new copies and then lock them away unread to enhance their collectible status, a bit like buying Star Wars toys and never taking them out of the packaging. Which would be a bit sad, I think.

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    1. I'm sure there were a few rabid mystery fans back in the 30s who did exactly what you describe. That could also explain why there are still a few of these books with the seal intact.

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  2. I have a certain admiration for those kinds of gimmicks. They're marketing ploys but they're not actually dishonest. They're not even sneaky.

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    1. After I posted this I realized that the reason many of my books don't have the rear half of the seal is because the previous owners were collecting the certificates to get a free book. I think I would've done the same. I didn't even write about that part of their marketing scheme. It was a two part gimmick.

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  3. Interesting post, John. I have never owned or read a "gimmicky" book and I'm not sure how I'd react should I come across one. Those are some wonderful covers, especially "The Street of the Serpents."

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    1. This post definitely wins the awards "Most Time Spent on a Post" and "Most Illustrations Used in a Post." I think I spent a total of five hours, taking photos, searching for photos, editing the photos to fit on the blog, and writing up the copy.

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    2. Blogger has tweaked something, somewhere. It's not easy to upload pictures and align them with the text or fit them in the space I want them to be in. Unlike in the past it takes me a while to do that now.

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  4. Very intersting, John. I think this is very cool, both from a publishing and a collecting standpoint. But the biggest surprise to this apparently I'll-informed reader is that Albert Peyson Terhune wrote mystery novels! I read, as a child, every dog book he wrote, several times over, and still have a few of them. But mystery novels? One even has a collie on the cover. I wonder if they're any good. Regardless, I'd love to read them!

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    1. I have the first one but without the DJ. The narrator has a dog in that one too. Could be the same character as the later book. I'll add The Secret of Sea-Dream House to my reading this month. You've aroused my curiosity.

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    2. I was amazed to see the mysteries too! I never read his dog stories (dog stories are always sad) but I just got Black Caesar's Clan and The Runaway Bag from Open Library and will give them a try.

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  5. Extremely interesting. A nice gimmick, I think.

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  6. Fabulous - and I so envy you those Carr books especially - mind you, I probably would not be able to resist breaking the seal! Love that Beeding cover - must read more of his (their) work.

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    1. I have more Carr first editions than any other writer in my vast library of vintage detective and mystery fiction. (Carr and "Carter Dickson" combined, that is.) I was surprised in looking through all of them that some of the Harper Sealed Mysteries were cleaned out entirely. You'd never know there was anything bound into the book. Like my copy of THE BLIND BARBER. Nothing! Not even a trace of blue paper on the rear free endpaper. Who is *that* fastidious? Not me!

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  7. What a clever gimmick. Who knew? Well, you did, John - obviously. I want to read every single book whose covers you showed on this post - gimmick or no gimmick. I've read that there are a few used book stores within close driving distance of my new abode - one of these days I will be reporting on what I found and brought home. Then you can gnash your teeth, John. :)

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    1. Too late for me to gnash my teeth. I've been to a slew of used bookstores in NC over the past ten years, Yvette. We used to drive to my Mom's house in Florida and drive back via NC and Tenn specifically to visit book stores. As far as vintage mysteries go, they're all shopped out. ...Just kidding. :^D

      How far do you live from Chapel Hill? There was an amazing used book store there for years. The Bookshop on 400 W. Franklin St. I found some rare rarities there and paid next to nothing for all of them. Interesting anecdote related to this store when I posted my review on the mysteries of Charles Forsyte. I should write it some day.

      Also, in Greensboro, NC there is Ed McKay Used Books and More. He has three other stores in the state, if you're not near Greensboro. And he's on the web. I remember visiting a really nice one where I bought quite a few vintage books with DJs, but can't recall the town or the names. I probably have it at home in my box of business cards and bookmarks that I pick up in my travels. If it find it, I'll email it to you.

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  8. Hi John - really enjoying the blog and learning lots. Looking back on some previous posts I bought a few G.M.Wilson titles after reading your positive reviews. Do you know how many books she wrote in total? Best wishes Clint

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    1. I thought perhaps that her entire bibliography was on the web somewhere. Turns out I was wrong. So I rectified that by adding it to the last post I wrote on Wilson. You can find it here. She wrote 22 books. I own 14 of them, but I think I'll have to stop hunting as I've only read five of them and have a lot of catching up to do on her books.

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  9. Hi John, many thanks for this much appreciated. I looked for a couple of days and through bits here and there managed to put a list of about 16 or so together. I have only started collecting her because of your interesting reviews. I am not sure if I should thank you for this or not... but again thank you for the information.
    Regards
    Clint

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    1. Many people curse me under their breath as they go looking for old books that they know they shouldn't be buying but are compelled to do so after reading these posts. Never knew I had such powers of persuasion. I probably should've gone into advertising or marketing of books though I'd probably have an ulcer by now and lost all my hair if I had done so.

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