Who Invented the Album Cover?

Alex Steinweiss

Woman looking at an album cover in a record store
Woman looking at an album cover in a record store. McMillan Digital Art/Getty Images

Before 1938, an album cover was no more than plain brown envelope, and records (aka vinyl recordings) were sold in the back of appliance shops. You did not browse the record collections, you asked the salesperson at the counter for the record you wanted to buy by name. In fact, at that time the term "album" did not refer to record covers as we know them today. An album referred to a collection of 10-inch, 78-speed records that were packaged into one book (similar to a photo album) with pages of paper sleeves where the records were stored.

There was no art on any record packaging beyond simple lettering. Sales of records were not impressive or significant at this point in history.

Alex Steinweiss - The Album Cover

Alex Steinweiss was born in 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. In 1930, Steinweiss began attending Abraham Lincoln High School, where his arts teacher Leon Friend, mentored young Steinweiss and a group of talented art students who were nicknamed the "art squad". Alex Steinweiss excelled as an illustrator and was featured in PM Magazine at the age of seventeen.

The talented student won a full scholarship to Parsons School of Art. He graduated from Parsons in 1937,and was hired as an art assistant by noted Austrian graphic designer, Joseph Binder. However, Alex Steinweiss' shining moment in history started when he was hired by Columbia Records at the age of twenty-three as their first art director and advertising manager.

At first, Alex Steinweiss fulfilled all the advertisement, posters, and other graphic needs of the newly formed Columbia Records.

It was Steinweiss who took a long look at the plain brown paper packaging that was commonplace for all records at that time, and suggested to Columbia Records that record packaging could be more appealing with the addition of illustrations.

First Album Cover

The first album cover that Alex Steinweiss designed was for a 1939 collection of songs by Rodgers and Hart.
His album cover depicted a theater marquee, with the composers' names spelled out with theater lights that pivoted on a center red axis. Sales of records with illustrated album covers sky-rocketed by up to nine-hundred percent, the newspapers picked up on the story reporting that records with illustrated album covers were showing amazing sales increases over the plain brown versions.

The way records were sold was ridiculous. The covers were brown, tan or green paper. They were not attractive, and lacked sales appeal. From Alex Steinweiss' New York Times Obituary.

During his careers, Alex Steinweiss created over twenty-five hundred album covers. He created album covers for Columbia Records, as well as London, RCA, Decca, and others. Most of his album covers were for records considered part of the golden age of jazz.

Alex Steinweiss retired in the mid-seventies and moved to Sarasota, Florida, where he died in 2011.

Alex Steinweiss - Inventions

Alex Steinweiss was the first person to come up with the concept of the illustrated album cover. He also received a patent for his design of a new type of protective album jacket for the new 33 1/3 r.p.m. long playing records (aka 12 inch) that were developed by Columbia Records.

According to the New York Times, Columbia Records' president Ted Wallerstein, introduced Alex Steinweiss to their new innovation: the long-playing record.

But there was a problem. The heavy, folded kraft paper used to protect 78 r.p.m. records left marks on the vinyl microgroove when 33 1/3 r.p.m. LPs were stacked. Steinweiss was asked to develop a jacket for the new format and, with help from his brother-in-law, found a manufacturer willing to invest about $250,000 in equipment. Steinweiss received the original patent for what became the industry [record] packaging standard.

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Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented the Album Cover?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 6, 2016, thoughtco.com/who-invented-the-album-cover-1992449. Bellis, Mary. (2016, August 6). Who Invented the Album Cover? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-the-album-cover-1992449 Bellis, Mary. "Who Invented the Album Cover?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-the-album-cover-1992449 (accessed November 24, 2017).