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Shelf view in Rare Books collection showing spines of Margaret Armstrong collection.
Books from the Margaret Armstrong Collection, Rare Books and Special Collections. Spine decorations by Margaret Armstrong. Photo by Leslie Long.

The Companionable Book Cover Designs of Margaret Armstrong

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The following is a guest post by Preservation Specialist Leslie Long in the General Collections Conservation Section. She conserves bound materials and pursues ongoing research in nineteenth century book cover design.

Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944) was one of the most successful book design artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She designed more than three hundred covers, mostly for Scribner, but for other publishers, too, including Putnam, Bobbs-Merrill, Crowell, Harper, McClurg, Dodd-Mead, Church, Appleton, Pott, Houghton Mifflin, and MacMillan.

She was the eldest of seven children in a prosperous Hudson River Valley family of artists. Her father, David Maitland Armstrong, designed stained glass after leaving his diplomatic post in Rome in 1871. Margaret’s sister Helen was a stained glass designer, too, who also helped design page decorations to complement some of Margaret’s book cover designs.

The Armstrong family’s New York City home at 58 West Tenth Street is now New York University’s Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House.

Image comprised of four photos: a book cover, an image plate on paper, a street view of a brick home, and an interior view of a home.
Clockwise from top left: Companionable Books by Henry Van Dyke, Scribner, 1922 – each flower symbolizes a famous author or book with the “MA” monogram top center; Illustration by Helen Armstrong from My Lady by Marguerite Bouvet, McClurg, 1894; Armstrong family’s New York City home at 58 West Tenth Street (interior); Armstrong family’s New York City home at 58 West Tenth Street (exterior). Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Margaret’s youngest sibling, Hamilton Fish Armstrong grew up to be editor of the magazine Foreign Affairs. He wrote a loving memoir called Those Days, published in 1963, about his family’s life during his childhood: “My recollection of the Tenth Street studio is of concentrated activity. Margaret would be at work on a book cover at the big table in the center,” he recalled. “Helen would perhaps be painting a panel of glass against the north window, or she might be on a stepladder working with long stalks of charcoal (p.140).” Young Ham was fascinated by the shell gold, paint with small pieces of real gold in it, that Margaret applied to the cover design drawings she would submit to publishers.

She did not have formal training as an artist but grew up surrounded by many prominent artists of the time who were family friends including Louis Comfort Tiffany, John La Farge, Elihu Vedder, William Merritt Chase and Winslow Homer. She was given watercolor painting lessons as a child by artist and author Susan Hale (1833-1910), sister of Edward Everett Hale. Margaret and Helen took art classes at the Cooper Union and at the Art Students’ League in New York City in the 1880s. They started selling their work at the New York Women’s Art Exchange.

Some of Armstrong’s first commercial designs were for children’s books. One can see her early style on the cover of Marguerite Bouvet’s novel Sweet William, 1890, for A. C. McClurg, one of her earliest published cover designs.

Her relatively modest early cover designs included bows and streamers, and little or no expensive gold. Clearly, publishers felt that even Margaret’s earliest covers helped sell books for them: as Sue Allen points out in her pamphlet Gleaming Gold and Shining Silver, publishers “put her forward in their advertisements ‘designed by Miss Armstrong.’” Promotional ads for newly published works with covers by Margaret and illustrations by Helen often mentioned them almost as prominently as they mentioned the authors.

Books with Armstrong’s cover designs cost between $0.50 and $1.50. A deluxe edition with a slipcase might cost $3.00. Occasionally, a leather-bound copy would be offered for as much as $5.00. In today’s currency, $1.00 in the 1890s would be equivalent to about $30.00.

In 1893, her work was displayed in the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, a huge public stage for emerging talent and inventions, including first appearances of the Ferris wheel, elevators, zippers, and voice recordings. In 1894, Armstrong’s work was displayed at New York’s important Grolier Club exhibit called “Commercial Bookbindings.”

Two images; Left: a printed advertisement for books. Right: blue cover of a book with gold design.
Left: Ad for Sweet William and other books by Marguerite Bouvet, McClurg, 1890 – each description reads in capital letters: “Illustrated by Helen and Margaret Armstrong.” Right: Sweet William by Marguerite Bouvet, McClurg, 1890 – Armstrong’s early design style with little or no gold. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

From 1895 onward, she included the MA monogram in most of her book cover, title page, and page decorations. Her cover designs became more complex, requiring more gold leaf and more different colored inks. She also developed her own lettering styles.

Brown book cover with floral motif.
How to Know the Flowers by Mrs. William Starr Dana, Scribner, 1895. Photo by Leslie Long.

 

Publishers began to hire artists to design book covers during the 1880s as they realized that the reading public, inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement that celebrated beauty in everyday objects, preferred to buy books with pretty covers. In the United States all book covers got beautiful cover decoration during this period. In Europe, decorated covers were more often reserved for works by famous authors.

Each separate ink color in a book cover design was applied separately to the cover cloth using an engraved stamp called a die. Each die would be fitted into a stamping press to make its impression in the cloth cover. Real twenty-three karat gold leaf had to be gently placed by hand on a cover for stamping by employees called gold layers. Real silver tarnished too much to be reliable for book design, so a mixture of aluminum and palladium was used instead. The cover stamping process was easier because of the invention (in the 1830s) of the cloth case book cover that could be completely assembled and decorated before it was attached to the book’s text pages.

How can we identify a Margaret Armstrong cover design apart from her “MA” monogram?

Many of Armstrong’s designs include accurately depicted flowers.

Her designs are often framed by borders of dots and dashes that are usually gold, but are sometimes silver.

She developed her own lettering styles. Her most obvious letter is her “R” with its long, gracefully curved descender.

Some of her designs resemble stained glass windows, which should be no surprise since she was surrounded by stained glass artists.

 Image showing four photos of different book covers. Clockwise from top left: green with moon and flowers, green with floral trees, green with floral trees, red with floral motif.
Clockwise from top left: Candle-lightin’ Time by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Dodd Mead, 1901 – cover design depicting Sagittaria latifolia (broadleaf arrowhead); Pippa Passes by Robert Browning, Dodd Mead, 1900 – Armstrong’s frame of gold dots and dashes; Song of the Cardinal by Gene Stratton Porter, Bobbs-Merrill, c. 1912 – stained glass appearance; Under the Crust by Thomas Nelson Page, Scribner, 1907 – letter “R” with a long tail. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

She used both glossy and matte gold textures as in her cover for The Tent on the Beach by John Greenleaf Whittier with its matte gold waves and glossy gold crabs. The cover could be purchased in brown, green, red, blue-green, or dark blue book cloth.

Some of Armstrong’s cover designs were published in more than one book cloth color with different ink color palettes.

Image comprised of four photos: a red and gold book cover, a dark green and gold floral cover, a lighter green and silver floral cover, and a book opened to two pages featuring colored floral images.
Clockwise from top left: The Tent on the Beach by John Greenleaf Whittier, Houghton Mifflin, 1899 – glossy (crabs and lettering) and matte (waves and background) gold textures, also published with green, blue, brown, and blue-green book cloth; Love Finds the Way by Paul Leicester Ford, Dodd Mead, 1904 – published in three cloth colors with different ink colors; Love Finds the Way by Paul Leicester Ford, Dodd Mead, 1904 – page border design for both cover variations by Margaret; Love Finds the Way by Paul Leicester Ford, Dodd Mead, 1904 – published in three cloth colors with different ink colors. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Armstrong sometimes used signature book cloth colors for particular authors. She designed fourteen different covers for the novels of Myrtle Reed, all on lavender book cloth. Her twelve different cover designs for Henry Van Dyke’s books are on dark blue cloth. Henry David Thoreau’s five covers all have decorations on dark green cloth. They are designed to sit on a book shelf together as a handsome set.

Six images. Across from top left: light blue book cover with floral motif; light blue book cover with silver motif; dark blue book cover with gold motif; dark blue book cover with silver and gold motif; green book cover with gold motif; green book cover with red and gold motif.
Clockwise from top left: The Master’s Violin by Myrtle Reed, Putnam, 1904, lavender cloth series; Old Rose and Silver by Myrtle Reed, Putnam, 1909, lavender cloth series; Days Off by Henry Van Dyke, Scribner, 1907, blue cloth series; A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers by Henry David Thoreau, Crowell, 1911, green cloth series; Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau, Crowell, 1908, green cloth series; Little Rivers by Henry Van Dyke, Scribner, 1903, blue cloth series. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Margaret and Helen sometimes collaborated on designing title pages, text page border decorations, and endsheets. The frontispiece illustration for Tennyson’s Maud is signed, “H.M. Armstrong.” The cover and endsheet designs, both by Margaret, are unsigned.

The new popularity of dust jackets beginning around 1910 gradually ended the era of beautiful book cover design.  Dust jackets were easier and cheaper to decorate than book covers. At first, dust jackets tried to imitate the cover designs under them, then gradually took over the role of decoration completely, leaving the cloth covers plain.

4 images. Clockwise from top: image showing a book and its opened dust jacket, both in blue. Book opened to inner page, left page shows oval image of woman, right page depicts title information; book opened to inner pages showing green design motif; green book cover with pink and gold floral motif.
Clockwise from top: Companionable Books and its dust jacket, 1922; Maud by Alfred Tennyson, Dodd Mead, 1905, illustrations and title page design by Helen and Margaret Armstrong; Maud endsheet design by Margaret Armstrong; Maud cover design with roses and lilies. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

After the coming of dust jackets, Armstrong moved on to a second career as a writer with her Field Book of Western Wild Flowers, published by Putnam in 1915, for which she also did the cover design, 500 black and white illustrations, and 48 color illustrations.

Her field book is still consulted today as a significant source book on the subject. She traveled to the American West with several women friends in 1909 to work on it, and became one of the first women to descend to the bottom of Grand Canyon.

Two images. Left: red book cover with gold cover design. Right: book illustration showing a butterfly tulip.
Left: Field Book of Western Wild Flowers by Margaret Armstrong, Putnam, 1915. Photo by Leslie Long. Right: Illustration from Field Book of Western Wild Flowers, Butterfly Tulip, page 62. Photo by Eric Frasier.

 

In Those Days, her brother Ham quotes one of her companions on her trip to the West: “Margaret would appear on a ledge with a flower in her mouth, and carefully make her way down using both hands, tuft by tuft, rock by rock; then, not waiting to brush the dust and burrs off her clothes, begin drawing the flower, perhaps one never correctly recorded, and making notes of the coloring. She drew all the flowers from life, and large numbers of them were described accurately for the first time (p. 137).”

She continued her writing career with Five Generations, Life and Letters of an American Family 1750-1900 (Harper, 1930) about her own family history; Fanny Kemble, A Passionate Victorian (Macmillan, 1938) a biography of an actress; Trelawny, A Man’s Life (Macmillan, 1940) a biography of an actor, and three mystery novels: Mystery in Stained Glass (1939), The Man with No Face (1940), and The Blue Santo Murder Mystery (Random House, 1941).

Reading Armstrong’s mystery novels provides a window into her personality. Her fiction has a gentle sense of humor. In her first novel, Murder in Stained Glass, the narrator and amateur sleuth has this conversation with her friend Edgar:

“I do hope you are not getting into mischief, Harriet.  There’s a gleam in your eye I don’t like and your hat is a little crooked.”
“Nonsense!” I said, straightening my hat.  “What an idea (p. 142)!”

The Library of Congress purchased a collection of books with Armstrong’s cover designs in 2008. The Library’s Margaret Armstrong Collection is housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. All the photographs of book covers in this blog post are of items in the Library’s Margaret Armstrong Collection. If you would like to learn more about the Golden Age of Book Design, you can view Leslie’s presentation from Preservation Week 2021.

 

To learn more, explore the following sources:

Allen, Sue. Gleaming Gold and Shining Silver: Nineteenth-Century Book Covers from the Collection of Leonard and Lisa Baskin. New Haven: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 2002.

Armstrong, Hamilton Fish. Those Days. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Armstrong, Margaret. Murder in Stained Glass. New York: Random House, 1939.

Armstrong, Margaret. The Man with No Face. New York: Random House, 1940.

Elliott, Maud. Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition. New York: Boussod, Valadon & Co., 1893.

Gullans, Charles B. and John Jenkins Espey. Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Bindings. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA, 1991.

Minsky, Richard. The Art of American Book Covers 1875-1930. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 2010.

Rogers, Joseph W. Bookbinding in America: The Rise of American Edition Binding. New York: Bowker, 1967.

Thing, Lowell. Cover Treasure: The Life and Art of Margaret Armstrong. Catskill, NY: Black Dome Press, 2022.

Van Kleeck, Mary. Women in the Bookbinding Trade. New York: Survey Associates, 1913.

 

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Comments (9)

  1. What a gem she was! And what a lovely finish to a book! Thanks.

  2. Lovely. Thank you.

  3. Fascinating. Comprehensive. Absolutely brilliant!

  4. Bravo, Leslie! Thanks for bringing Margaret Armstrong’s life story and lovely book cover art to a broader audiance!

  5. Astounding and inspiring! Thank you for this enlarging piece of scholarship!

  6. Beautiful covers. I did not know about this illustrator/artist. Thank you for sharing the article and photos of her art work. Her addition to our knowledge about the wildflowers of the West should be widely acknowledged.

  7. Thanks for an excellent post that summarizes her art and career very well! The illustrations do a nice job of illustrating both her art and the wealth of the LOC collection!

  8. The collection of Margaret’s original drawings and paintings were given by my sister my brother and me to the library of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC. They can be visited at any time by any member of the public by making a reservation. The Met has had several shows and a symposium on the family and its art. There is a current exhibit hanging at the MET with some of The David Maitland Armstrong’s designs with a couple of ones by Helen. They have made jewelry, scarves, notecards and dish towels from Margaret’s designs. Now they want to make more things from her covers but that is a little more complicated because of intellectual property law.
    It was an amazing family for sure!

  9. I remember John Espey and Charles Gullans working on their Margaret Armstrong book back in the late 1960s at UCLA. Theirs were the only offices where all the books on their shelves were standing upright with their front covers (instead of book spines) facing outward. Two great teachers, scholars, and bibliographers. So lucky to have known them.

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