Women as Artist Designers

The Woman Artist as a Paid Designer

Alice C. Morse signed Art Nouveau design in olive cloth with elaborate gilt stamping to cover and spine.Top edge gilt.

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.



Bound in flexible green diagonal-fine-rib-grain cloth in a wrap-around design, signed by Bertha Stuart.

Bound in flexible green diagonal-fine-rib-grain cloth in a wrap-around design, an unsigned binding by Bertha Stuart.

Bound in flexible bright red cloth with an elaborate gilt cover in a wrap-around design in a signed binding by Bertha Stuart.


Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944)

Bound in dark blue cloth stamped in gilt with two matching panels in an elaborate art nouveau iris and seashell design with a crab at the base of each iris. Signed Margaret Armstrong binding. Monogram to left of crab in right corner.

Bound in olive green linen-weave cloth in an unsigned art nouveau Margaret Armstrong binding.

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)

Book design by Sarah Wyman Whitman in a forest-green coarse-woven cloth with a crossed design composed of three vertical and horizontal lines with large floral outlines extending to the edge of the boards, the center of which has a gilt rectangle with the title in black.

Dark green decorative cloth binding design of iris flowing in pale green and rich purple outlined in gilt within an enclosed overlay of gilt circles. Unsigned binding design by Sarah Wyman Whitman.

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.”


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