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Women in Book Cover Design

We recently wrote about the tedious and arduous process of hand-sewn book binding and the hard work of the young women involved. But what about the book covers themselves? We thought it might be interesting to take a look at women’s role in crafting book covers. Early book covers were individually crafted when a book was purchased. In the 1830s case-binding started replacing most hand-crafted covers, and engravers and die-makers created the brass plates used to emboss the cases. With these changes, book production slowly increased as prices decreased.  Towards the end of the 19th century, mass-produced books with book covers crafted by well-respected designers became both popular and relatively affordable.

Tiverton Tales, by Alice Brown. Cover designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman.

The height of book cover design may have been the late 19th century as publishers responded to increasing criticism of the “ugly” and “cheap” books they were producing, and the middle class began to read en masse. Books were symbols of education, and people began to purchase them as (relatively) affordable art objects. This shift also corresponded with the end of the Civil War and the increase in widowed, impoverished women. In the face of a growing number of families headed by women after the devastation of the Civil War, social reformers responded with offering educational and professional opportunities for women. This confluence of a rise in demand for trained book designers and a willingness to hire women contributed to what many believe is the pinnacle of artistic book cover design.  Alice Cordelia Morse (1863-1961), Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867-1944) and Sarah W. Whitman (1842-1904), are considered by some to be the best book cover designers of that era. The three worked to bring principles of good design to mass production. In many ways, these women were also instrumental in paving the way for women artists to gain professional status.

Whitman, born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a wealthy, upper-class family, was one of the earliest and most influential book cover designers, creating her first design in 1884. She originally studied painting and then moved towards stained glass. Morse, born in Hammondsville, Ohio, was raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. She studied art and design, specializing in drawing, in Manhattan at the Woman’s Art School of the Cooper Union, one of the only art schools at that time that was open for women. Cooper Union often placed its female students with manufacturers to help gain them employment. Armstrong was born into a wealthy family in New York City, began designing holiday cards in her teens, and eventually moved to book cover design.

Morse, like Whitman before her, began her career working with stained glass artist John La Farge and then became an employee for Louis C. Tiffany and a designer of stained glass windows (One of the windows in Beecher Memorial Church in Brooklyn was designed by Morse). Morse left her stained glass work after two years and began designing book covers in the 1890s. Whitman was commissioned to work in the Central Congregational Church in Worcester, MA on stained glass and opened her own studio and factory where she employed several artisans. Eventually, she was employed by Houghton Mifflin to oversee all their book cover designs. Armstrong skipped the stained glass phase, though her sister and father did work with Tiffany, and moved straight to book design. She was the primary designer for Harper Brothers and Scribner’s Sons, where she often worked with Morse.

Perhaps because of the attention being paid to social reform at this time, Morse and Whitman also encouraged the development of the arts for other women. In 1893, Morse chaired the Subcommittee on Book Covers, Wood Engraving, and Illustration of the Board of Women Managers for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition. She also exhibited her own book covers and

Knoxboy Travellers, by Thomas W. Knox. Cover design by Alice Morse.

was awarded both a diploma and a gold medal. This exhibition had a significant impact on bringing women artists to the public eye and increasing their success in commercial art endeavors. Similarly, Whitman inaugurated the Boston Water Color Club for women in addition to working tirelessly to establish the women’s college of Radcliffe.

Morse was also active in supporting other women artists and worked for the New York Society of Decorative Arts from 1893-1895, an organization dedicated to helping women artists find training and employment. She believed, it is said, that women were the best designers because of an intuitive sense of beauty. There was a also a sense that the women designers contributed a “moral” value to the books. The Arts and Crafts Movement of the era was built on the ideas of design, morality, utility and beauty. Whitman, Morse, and to a lesser extent Armstrong, were influenced by this aesthetic sense and the idea that the middle class should have access to good design. It is worth noting, however, that there was some criticism of this mix of social reform with craft. Ellen Gates Starr (1860-1894), who established a bookbindery in the 1890s, eventually closed down shop because she realized that her books would only ever be purchased by the rich.

Morse’s standing in the book design community grew through the turn of the 19th century, and she created an estimated 83 covers, often for expensive publications and for a variety of types of books from poetry to travel literature. She also contributed in-text illustrations and borders. Whitman was incredibly prolific, producing at least 200 book covers with a minimalist design that was quite unusual for its time. Whitman was a highly sought after, and expensive, designer. Armstrong is often compared to Whitman though Armstrong, with 250 book covers to her name, is remembered for how distinctive her book cover

Days Off, by Henry Van Dyke. Cover design by Margaret Armstrong.

designs were and her book cover sets where she would design several works by one author using related designs across the books. Some of Armstrong’s work is signed with a small MA on the cover.

Morse began her book designing years with a focus on classical ornament from Roman and Renaissance art but began to broaden out to encompass a variety of design styles from Celtic to Gothic, Rococo to Arts and Crafts. Her versatile designs tended to be highly stylized patterns of organic forms as she attempted to depict the book’s main ideas in her art. In contrast, Whitman’s illustrations emphasized the Arts and Crafts design aesthetic as well but she had an almost radical minimalism with an unusual emphasis on negative space that ended up influencing later artists to develop a more minimal and less decorative approach to book covers. Armstrong favored the Art Nouveau style with bold colors, stylized plants and often asymmetrical designs.

While less expensive than individually tooled books, the book design process was labor intensive. The artist would design two or three different sketches for each book, and the publisher would select the cover depending on issues of cost and availability of materials. The book cover designer would then prepare a finished colored drawing of the selected design. Books were bound using “case binding” where the books are manufactured separately from the text blocks. The covers require transferring the hand drawn designs to brass stamps, one for each color required in the design.

As printing technologies advanced at the turn of the century, the demand for the labor-intensive and expensively-designed cloth bound books and covers of individual designers declined with the rise of paper book jackets.  The art of book design became more commercial and inexpensive, a boon for book buyers because of the decline in cost but a loss to those who admired the unique and beautiful designs.

Sarah Wyman Whitman died in 1904 before the shift away from artist designed book covers. With the loss of the book design business, Alice Cordelia Morse turned to teaching and became a public school teacher in Scranton PA, where she made a better living than she ever could as a designer. Margaret Neilson Armstrong turned to writing her own books on wild flowers to support herself and wrote several mystery novels in her seventies. Still, Morse, Whitman and Armstrong’s talent and activism stand out as an excellent example of the art of book design and also marks progress that women were making into the book arts and the commercial world.


Dr. Mary Vasudeva has a PhD in English and currently teaches writing and critical thinking at Diablo Valley College. She is also studying for her Masters in Library and Information Science at San Jose State University. Recent publications include a book review of Overcoming Information Poverty, by Anthony McKeown and selected writing sections for the textbook, Asking the Right Questions, in the forthcoming 12th edition.


Sources Consulted

Dubansky, M. (2009). Alice Cordelia Morse (1863-1961). The Met. Retrieved from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mors/hd_mors.htm.

Eckel, Molly, “”A Touch of Art”: Sarah Wyman Whitman and the Art of the Book in Boston” (2012). Honors Thesis Collection. Paper 67.

Frelinghuysen, A., Dunn, J., & Dubansky, M. (2008). The proper decoration of book covers: the life and work of Alice C. Morse. New York: Grolier Club.

Thomson, E. M. (1997). The origins of graphic design in America, 1870-1920. New Haven: Yale University Press.

University of Rochester. (2015). “Beauty for Commerce: Margaret Armstrong”. River Campus Libraries. Retrieved from http://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/3351.

Learning Sewn Endbands

This past autumn I had the opportunity to take Bookbinding Level II through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild (CCBAG). During level two one of the things we learned was how to do sewn endbands. Previously in level one we had done endbands made from cord and cloth wrapped around it. These are known as “stuck on endbands” and they have been used as far back as the 1800s. I recently bought some prior to level two; they come in useful for a quick work!

Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery

Above is a picture of what they can look like. As you can see, all a binder would need to do is snip the endband to the correct size and stick it on with a bit of glue to the spine of the book at the head and tail.

Just to note, I’ve used the term endband to imply both bands at either head or tail of the book. Specifically, the band at the head is called a headband and the band at the tail is called an endband, however many people use either term to refer generically to both head and tail and often don’t specify. During class we called them endbands and so in this post I will refer to them as endbands.

Endbands are decorative and structural in function. The endbands can add strength and support to a binding. Sewn endbands consist of a core with either silk or linen thread wrapped around it. A core for an endband can be made from: cord, rolled paper, rolled leather, or a combination of leather and vellum. The core is generally thin, though you can create more elaborate endbands from double cores. In level two I learned how to do a two-color endband and a foundation endband. You can see these below. The two-color endband is number seven and the foundation endband (also called conservation endband) is number one.

Image credit: http://www.artesdellibro.com

Endbands can get even more creative and artistic than the variety shown here. Here are some found on the web:

   

Image credit: lilbookbinder.wordpress.com

Another style of endband is the Coptic endband. This endband has the weave going continuously from board across textblock and back to other board.

Image credit: henryhebert.net

Learning the endbands wasn’t as difficult as I imagined it might be, though it did take practice! We worked with silk thread and went around cord. The thread was probably the hardest to manage, being silk. Keeping the tension tight for the length of the endband was also something that required practice. In order to learn Dan (our teacher) had us practice on old telephone books. This allowed us to work with a larger cord and a larger textblock. Below is an photo of the two-color endband that we learned.

Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery

The endbands get sewn into the textblock and when working on a telephone book that proved to be tricky. Often times pliers were needed to help the needle along through the thickness of the book, when it came time to sew our actual textblocks it was much easier. As a result, the back of the phone book looks a bit messy from lots of practice attempts. Looking online though one can see many examples of sewn endbands that look very neat and uniform on the spine! Below is an image of the formation endband.

Image credit: Arielle’s Bindery

I find sewing endbands to be rather relaxing, other binders find it tedious. It certainly adds to the appeal of a book, I think. It’s certainly something that requires a bit of practice to get them really looking nice, and with so many styles to learn there is a lot to practice!


Guest blogger Arielle VanderSchans is a linguist and librarian living in Canada. She currently studies bookbinding through the Canadian Bookbinding and Book Arts Guild. You can follow her as she learns the trade here: https://ariellesbindery.com

A Factory Girl at The Dickens Fair

In over a year of giving tours at the American Bookbinders Museum, I have spoken about the women in mid-19th-century binderies who sewed books, day in and day out. Speed was of the essence: By the mid-1800s many of the time-consuming processes of binding had been mechanized, increasing production capacity hugely. The bottleneck? Sewing. So compromises were made in the way books were sewn in order to move that process along faster. A skilled worker on the sewing floor was expected to sew 200 books a day.

Think about that. In a ten hour day, that’s twenty books an hour.

In order to do that, the sturdy practice of sewing around cords was replaced with sewing past them: notches were cut in the spines of books and the book-sewer ran the thread into a signature, out the notch, in back of the cord, back into the notch, and so on. When pulled tight, the thread pulled the cords into the notches. The rub, in terms of quality, was that there was nothing to hold the cord there; if a thread broke, the cord could pop out and the book fall apart. Still, it was fast. Twenty-books-an-hour fast.

Which is where I come in. For five days this fall (spread out over five weekends), as a way of piquing interest in the history of binding and in the ABM, I appeared at San Francisco’s Dickens Christmas Fair in the role of one of those workers. My first conclusion: If paid by the piece–which one often was–I might have starved to death before I reached any decent speed. Even with five days of working at my new skill, I was unable to do more than eight books an hour. As with many hand skills, the process is much more complex than it looks, and attempting to do it properly takes focus.

Focus comes hard when you’re sitting on a busy by-way, talking about binding to everyone who comes by. Parents with children–especially very small children–would stop to watch. A startling number of people who took bookbinding in middle-school (who knew?) came by to reminisce. Older kids sometimes seemed jaded about the process until I pointed out that, because of the “new-fangled machinery,” books were becoming inexpensive enough that even a poor Factory Girl like me could own one. Some people just wanted to sit on a nearby bench and watch for a while. Many people took photos or video, some asked me about the paper and thread I was using, or thought I might be tatting. In character as Annie, an Irish bindery worker, I answered all the questions I could, and steered people to the ABM brochures you can see in the basket on the left.

Staying in character and yet trying to give some of the background on where sunken-cord sewing fit into the history of 19th century binding, I sometimes had to resort to my character’s Celtic second-sight: Dickens Fair is set sometime around the 1850s, and the first successful book sewing machine would not be patented until 1871. “This is the only way it’s done now, but in a decade or two, you wait. They’ll find a way to build a machine to do the sewing too.”

In order to conserve materials, I would wait until I had used up all my signatures, then pull them off the cords, cut the threads, and start all over again. Even for that I had a story: “We’ve a new girl at the bindery, just learning the work, and sometimes I have to take her books apart and sew ’em again.”

It’s not often you get to be the problem and the solution.

 

 

 

S. T. Prideaux on Design

Image to be found in the "Unseen Hands" online exhibit at Princeton University

Image to be found in the “Unseen Hands” online exhibit at Princeton University

One of the notable individuals featured in our current exhibit, “The Woman Bookbinder,” is Sarah Treverbian Prideaux (1853-1933). Born in London, S.T. Prideaux ended up as one of the most distinguished female bookbinders and binding designers of her time, even though she began at age 35. She was lucky enough to receive training from the noted Zaehnsdorf family, and began producing bindings heavily influenced by the Art Nouveau style.  (more…)

Bookbinding and the Working Woman

Factory GirlOne of the by-products of the Industrial Revolution was a change in the status of women working outside the home. Working from home–doing piece work in and around all the other jobs that were part of running a home, or being part of the “seasonal work force” for her husband’s business–had been part of women’s lot for centuries. But as industrialization moved manufacturing out of the home and the workshop and into the factories, women as well as men followed.
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