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.
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
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
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.
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.