The Ladies of the Decorations: Decorated Bindings by Women Designers from the Browne Library
Wednesday April 30th 1997, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Exhibitions

On Display, Summer 1997

Case 1

[Cornelius Matthews] Chanticleer: A Thanksgiving Story of the Peabody Family. Boston: B. B. Mussey & Co.; New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850. Raymond Lee Newcomb. Our Lost Explorers: The Narrative of the Jeannette Arctic Expedition as Related by the Survivors . . . Hartford: American Publishing Company; San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Co., 1884.

Thomas Moore. Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Romance. Chicago and New York: Belford, Clarke & Company, [189-].

Marietta Holley. Samantha at the World’s Fair, by Josiah Allen’s Wife. New York, London and Toronto: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1893.

Until the 1830’s, publishers issued books unbound or in plain paper wrappers, leaving the job of arranging for binding to the bookseller or book buyer. In the 1830’s, the invention of automatic binding machines made it possible to issue bound books inexpensively, and the modern book clad in a decorative binding was born. The decoration of early cloth bindings, such as that for Chanticleer, tends to remain confined to decorative borders, sometimes with an illustrative vignette added in the center. After the middle of the nineteenth century, publishers began to employ artists and craftspeople to design bindings which exploited both the decorative and advertising possibilities offered by the front board of the book. By the 1890’s, a small army of designers, many of them women, worked for American publishers to create designs and illustrations to be stamped on cloth. The heyday of the decorated cloth binding lasts shortly until after World War I, when cheaper methods of book decoration, such as the full-color book jacket, supplant them as a primary advertising device for books.

Case 2

Sarah Wyman Whitman, 1842-1904 Mrs. A. D. T. Whitney. Homespun Yarns. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1887, c1886.

Sarah Orne Jewett. A Native of Winby and Other Tales. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1893.

Oliver Wendell Holmes. Dorothy Q. Together with a Ballad of the Boston Tea Party & Grandmother’s Story of Bunker Hill Battle. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1893.

Kate Douglas Wiggin. Timothy’s Quest: A Story for Anybody, Young or Old, Who Cares to Read It. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1895.

Helen Choate Prince. The Story of Christine Rochefort. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and company, 1895.

The golden age of American artist-designed bindings begins in Boston in the early 1880’s with the work of Sarah Wyman Whitman. She designed several hundred Houghton, Mifflin publications from the early 1880’s through the turn of the century in a style whose austerity is as unremarkable now as it was revolutionary then. Whitman’s distinctive hand lettering, her careful choice of cloth colors and textures, and her slender, stylized decorative vignettes anticipated much of Art Nouveau design of the nineties, and gave Houghton, Mifflin publications an absolutely unmistakable house style.

Case 3

Margaret Armstrong, 1867-1944 Frances Theodora Parsons. How to Know the Ferns. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899.

Henry Van Dyke. Days Off and Other Digressions. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907.

Myrtle Reed. Lavender and Old Lace. New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907, c1902.

Henry Van Dyke. The Blue Flower. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902.

Frank R. Stockton. Mrs. Cliff’s Yacht. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912.

Margaret Armstrong signed most of her bindings with a distinctive monogram, which has made identifying the hundreds of bindings and book decorations she created over a prolific career a comparatively simple task. Margaret Armstrong’s style came to define the look of the “genteel” fiction and poetry issued in great quantity by Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Case 4

C. A. Jones. Only a Girl: A Story of a Quiet Life. New York: A. L. Burt Company, [190-] Frederic S. Isham. Black Friday. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1904. Binding signed with monogram RR.

Dwight Tilton. My Lady Daughter. Boston: C. M. Clark, 1904. Binding design adapted from an illustration by Charles H. Stevens.

Frances Little. The Lady of the Decoration. New York: The Century Co., 1907.

Whether on plants, on ticker tapes, or on the outline of a female form, the decorative S-curve motif is ubiquitous in American publishers’ bindings of the turn of the century. Its origins are found in European Art Nouveau design, and in the interest in all things Japanese in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In all, the S-curve contributes to a near-glut of women and plants on the covers of novels aimed at a female readership. For novels aimed at men, such as Black Friday, the same decorative motif was adapted to the masculine setting.

Case 5

Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth. The Lady of the Isle. Chicago: M. A. Donohue, [190-] George Barr McCutcheon. Nedra. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1905. Cover from an illustration by Harrison Fisher.

Augustus Thomas. The Witching Hour. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, c1908.

Laura E. Richards. Geoffrey Strong. Boston: Dana Estes & Company, c1901. Binding design by Julia Ward Richards, the daughter of the author.

The popularity of decorated bindings led to the exploration of ever more elaborate ways of distinguishing one title from another in the crowd of publications in booksellers’ displays. Two ways in which American publishers attempted to distinguish their titles was through the use of illustrations to enhance their texts, and the use of onlays–pieces of color-printed paper glued and stamped to their bindings. Through these strategies, publishers could appeal to readers of illustrated magazine fiction by incorporating the style and the work of magazine illustrators into their products. Though the binding designer is rarely credited within the book itself, the illustrator usually receives credit on the title page.

Case 6

Margaret Brundage, 1900-1976 Weird Tales. October 1933. Weird Tales. November 1933. Weird Tales. April 1935. Weird Tales. June 1938. After World War I, the decorated cloth or paper binding declined in popularity in the face of other, bright media, notably full-color book jackets designed to compete with the covers of magazines. Though many women artists drew covers for American magazines, particularly women’s fashion magazines, Margaret Brundage was the lone woman to make her reputation as a cover artist in the lurid pulp magazines. Brundage’s style and her choice of pastel as a medium were heavily influenced by the look and content of American women’s magazines, but the content is pure Weird Tales. She worked for Weird Tales from 1929 until 1938, creating a body of work unmatched for its lurid excess, even in the feverish world of pulp cover art.

Case 7

Photoplay Magazine. October, 1920. Cover painting by Rolf Armstrong. Winifred Van Duzer. Our Dancing Daughters. Based on the photoplay by Josephine Lovett. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, c1928. Jacket painting signed: “SKRenda.”

Photoplay. May, 1935. Cover painting by Georgia Warren.

Charlotte Bront. Jane Eyre. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing,1943.

Face with the rise in popularity of motion pictures after World War I, American publishers adapted both the contents of their books and the look of their book jackets to steal some of the fire of the competition.

Case 8

Ladies’ Home Journal. March 1934

The Woman Today. Chicago: Zoty Corporation, c1935. Cover illustration signed “J. Cannert.”

Ladies’ Home Journal. November 1937. Cover photograph by Alexander Steichen.

You. Spring, 1940. Cover photograph by Saxon-Viles. Since the rise of the illustrated magazine and decorated publishers’ bindings in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it has been a publishing truism that the best way to sell texts aimed at women is to place a picture of a woman on the cover.

Case 9

William Sloane. To Walk the Night. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing, 1946, c1937. Jacket by Riki Levinson. Carroll Cox Estes. Unhappy New Year. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, c1953. Jacket by Margot Tomes.

Nevil Shute. On the Beach. New York: William Morrow, 1957. Jacket by Miriam Woods.

Celestine Sibley. The Malignant Heart. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1958. Jacket by Margot Tomes.

While attention to the decoration of the book’s binding nearly disappeared after it acquired a full-color jacket in the early twentieth century, many jacket designers have carried on the same high standards of their predecessors, while working in an understated modernist style heavily influenced by the noted book designer and teacher, George Salter.