Women as Artist Designers
The Woman Artist as a Paid Designer
In the late 1880s, the process for designing book covers changed. Retreating from the Victorian gilt excesses of the 1870s, publishers began hiring professional artists to create their book covers. These artists brought a new level of sophistication to the appearance of covers, composing layouts and designing unique typefaces that were influenced by the major artistic styles of the time. Artist-designed book covers captivated readers and made them more likely to become repeat buyers, a cost-effective form of advertisement for the publisher.
Many of these professional artists were women already working in a variety of disciplines, including illustration, graphic design, and stained glass. Being employed as an artist was one of the few respectable jobs for “ladies,” and institutions were established to train women and provide opportunities to showcase and market their skills. For the first time on an international stage, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) had a “Woman’s Building” where their art and handicraft was exhibited. Alice Cordelia Morse (1863-1961) not only chaired the Sub-Committee on Book-Covers, Wood-Engraving, and Illustration at this fair, but also won a medal for her book cover designs.
The employment of women as book designers had a significant impact on turn-of-the century book design, as many of the most prolific and acclaimed designers of publishers’ bindings were women.
Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944)
Armstrong, a graphic artist, became the premier cover designer for the New York City publishers Harper Brothers, G.P. Putnam, and Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Known for her stylized Art Nouveau designs, Armstrong had an eclectic style of bold, contrasting colors enhanced with gold and silver. Her use of several colored inks on a single cover was visually appealing and her larger designs were easy to see at a distance, a crucial factor in their role as advertisements. With over 200 known binding designs, she was the first designer to create a recognized “brand” with the public.
She designed for major authors, including Paul Dunbar, Washington Irving, Henry Thoreau, Henry Van Dyke, and John Greenleaf Whittier, often creating sets of complementary covers that became identified with particular authors. A lavender series on the next page, 1890s-1920s Books of Beauty: A Holistic Approach, and the blue series in the center case.
At the end of the decorative binding era, Armstrong became an author and naturalist—she is said to be among the first women to reach the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904)
A pioneer in the field of book cover design, Whitman was a figure in Boston society. She was a successful professional painter and stained glass artist before taking up book cover design in the 1880s. Whitman became the first professional artist
regularly employed by Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin and frequently designed covers for her friends Sarah Orne Jewett, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In sharp contrast to the Victorian excess of the 1870s, Whitman’s work, is defined by elegant simplicity of line and color, exemplifying the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement. With over 200 book designs, Whitman’s work is characterized by strong vertical and horizontal lines, wrap-around bindings, stylized and elongated single flowers, and her distinctive calligraphy. Her bindings are known for her use of two cloth colors with differing textures, a spare and limited use of gilt decoration, and her design signature, a “flaming heart.”