IN THE WINTER of 1977, a young Dutch architectural student named Hans Oldewarris ventured to New York with an odd mission. A cultural group he represented, Utopia Foundation, was planning an exhibit of vintage American paperback art, and Oldewarris was to research the show's catalogue. It seems that early American paperbacks, from the 1940s and '50s, had become a sought-after collectible in Amsterdam.

But wherever Oldewarris went -- Bantam, Signet, Pocket Books -- the story was the same; there were virtually no records of artists and scant information on the industry's growth. The conglomerates that now owned the houses had swept clean, and it appeared to anyone working to fill the void that paperback history would be much harder to document than thought. Oldewarris appealed through various book supplements for help, but met with a lukewarm response. Still, he provided a catalyst for the scattered paperback collectors around the country and rescue operations in the infant field were soon under way.

When Robert DeGraff, a New York publisher, modestly introduced "Gertrude the Kangeroo" and the first 10 laminated paperbound Pocketbooks in 1939, he probably didn't consider those softcovered editions of Lost Horizon and Topper as the seeds of a billion dollar international industry. But the 40 years since has been time enough to develop a tradition, one that is currently traced by scholars rooting around in used book stores and thrift shops. Paperbacks, and particularly their cover illustrations, have proved both esthetically intriguing in themselves and valuable as a barometer of popular taste. Artists like Jonas, Norman Saunders and Avati, who illustrated countless Erskine Caldwell novels, are being reevaluated, and enthusiasts are discovering in their work a vibrant form that often transcends the marketplace.

There had been earlier paperback attempts during the 1930s (Modern Age Books, Whitman Books), but DeGraff was after something different. Carefully selecting for his first titles a mixed bag of "approved" fiction, inspirational best sellers, bonafide classic and English drawing-room whodunits, he produced sturdy, quality pocket-sized books that, even after four decades, can be found in good physical condition, in large part because of rigid cover stock and relatively high-grade paper.

But it was DeGraff's marketing vision that spelled success for his little books. Learning from Allan Lane's work with Penguin Books in England some years earlier, he cannily opened up new channels of distribution, placing paperbacks in magazine stands, subway and other public places. The strategy located a whole new market and ultimately changed world reading habits. Soon a Pocketbook became synonymous with paperback; many editions didn't even need to carry the 25-cent price label. "My idea," DeGraff has explained, "was to put out 25-cent books which could fit easily into pocket or purse and to provide them with attractive picture covers".

Those early covers were adorned with painted illustrations that quietly exhibited the approved culture within. The war changed all that, as Pocket began to reprint the hard-boiled school of Hammett and Chandler. More important, the cover art for these American authors reflected the modernist esthetic forces popular in the '20s and '30s -- expressionism and surrealism. Strange, dreamlike covers on scores of Perry Masons and Agatha Christies point to the enormous influence Dali exerted on graphics, as well as to how obsessed we were with psychiatry.

Pocket Books had the field almost to itself until 1943. The deluge came after the war with Dell Books and their famous map-back mysteries. Perhaps the hottest collectible today, Dell's multicolored map illustrations for its '40s detective stories and thrillers has made them especially appealing to completists, those collectors who hope to acquire an entire series.

The Bantam Rooster was born in 1946 and brought fresh creative energy to the field. Early Bantam books had a clean, uncluttered look that would especially influence the appearance of the '50s paperback. Their cover art ranged from photomontage and Thomas Hart Benton regionalism to an innovative use of cartoon and animation. Less stodgy than other houses, Bantam was the first to reprint Americn moderns like Hemingway and Fitzgerald (the history of cover illustration for The Great Gatsby is a fascinating study in changing taste), and helped popularize the vogue for light urban comic novelists like Max Shulman.

But before the '40s ended, it was New American Library's Signet Books that again altered the face of the industry, this time by illustrating covers with a highly unified, somber urban realism, usually in brownish washes. This style paralled the new interest in sociological fiction that emerged in late '40s film and culture: Dali was out and Raphael Soyer was in. Immediately distinctive, Signet's atmospheric paperback naturalism by artist like Avati became a widely imitated standard, at least until the late 1950s, when the white cover arrived.

Bantam, not to be outdone, enlarged Signet's visual approach: their covers came to resemble the seductive melange of the movie poster, with scenes from the novel, usually of a sensational nature, depicted on a dark background. fDispensing with conventional flap copy, Bantam even highlighted more key narrative scenes on the back cover, and brought the paperback increasingly closer to Hollywood visuals. But by mid-'50s, Bantam and the others had exhausted the naturalistic style, and a fresh, light, more abstract look was gradually beginning to emerge.

Still, the more garnish drugstore paperback cover survived throughout the decade in the paperback original, espcially in series or genre novels. Neglected gems of pop culture, like the backwoods or swampgirl novel, are currently being rediscovered, particularly through the efforts of Paperback Quarterly (1710 Vincent St., Brownwood, Texas 76801), a journal devoted to softcover sleaze -- the world of B-girls, "fast living and faster women." The future for the collector of early paperbacks looks promising.

As for Oldewarris, his Utopia Fondation has published an entire magazine devoted to vintage paperback cover art and is planning an exhibit in Roterdam this fall.