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Close-up view of two hands carefully at work on an aged, yellowing manuscript with handwriting
Michelle Smith from the Library's Conservation Division disbinds the autobiographical manuscript “The Life of Omar ibn Said” in preparation for further preservation treatment, June 15, 2018. (Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

The Touch of Art: Book Cover Designs of Sarah Wyman Whitman

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

Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904) was one of the first American artists to make a career of book cover design. From 1880 to 1904 she designed around 300 book covers, mostly for Houghton, Mifflin and Company. Her covers sold books so well that the publisher mentioned her name as the cover designer in its advertisements.

Whitman lived her early life in Baltimore, but she lived her adult life in Boston. She married Henry Whitman, a prosperous wool merchant, when she was 24, and she had her own wealth through inheritance.  She was known for encouraging other artists and as a patron of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the North Bennet Street School, Howard University, the Tuskegee Institute, and Radcliffe College.

Left: green cover of book titled Passe Rose with a gold flower detail. Right: gated sidewalk leading to a green door of a brick home.
Left: Passe Rose by Arthur Sherburne Hardy, Houghton Mifflin, 1889, gold and black stamped wild rose on green cloth, black stamped rustic lettering. Right: Sarah Wyman Whitman’s home in Boston. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Author John Jay Chapman wrote, “The earliest reputation that Mrs. Whitman achieved was that of being an unknown lady from some savage town – Baltimore, perhaps – who had appeared in Boston. It was not many years, however, before she had become a center of social influence (Chapman, p. 103).” Whitman’s home at 77 Mount Vernon Street on Beacon Hill was a gathering place for writers and artists while she lived there from 1880 to 1904. Since 1936, it has been owned by the Club of Odd Volumes, a private social club for Boston book collectors.

Whitman had three careers that overlapped. She began as a painter, studying with William Morris Hunt in Boston and Thomas Couture in Paris. Her paintings were exhibited in galleries in Boston and New York. They were also displayed at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and at the Paris Expositions of 1889 and 1900. She was a member of the Society of American Artists from 1868 to 1879, one of three women of its forty-five members. The others were Helena Gilder and Mary Cassatt. Whitman was also a founding member of the Boston Arts and Crafts Society. Her friend, Helen Merriman, painted a portrait of Whitman holding her artist’s palate.

Whitman’s second career was in stained glass design. She apprenticed herself to John La Farge, a painter and stained-glass artist who designed windows for Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square where Whitman worshipped. She opened her own factory called the Lily Glass Works at 184 Boylston Street, and hired artisans to complete her stained-glass windows that can still be seen in New England churches and colleges, including Harvard University, Grace Church in New York, and Bowdoin College in Maine.

In 1895, Whitman designed three adjoining windows for Trinity Church as a memorial for Phillips Brooks, who was rector when Whitman was a parishioner there. The windows were a gift from the Women’s Bible class that Whitman taught and are in the Parish House where the class met.

Whitman designed a window for her friend and neighbor, Fanny Mason around 1897 that is now in the Boston Athenaeum. The Latin text inscribed on it, is by Dante, “regenerate, in the manner of new trees that are renewed with new foliage.”

Left is a 20th century painting of a woman. Right is an image of a stained glass memorial window.
Left: Painting of Whitman by Helen Merriman, 1909, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, public domain photo. Right: Phillips Brooks Memorial Window, Trinity Church, Boston. Photo by Leslie Long.

 

Whitman’s third career as a book designer began in 1880 as a favor to a friend, author Susan Coolidge. She designed her first commercial book cover for Coolidge’s book of poems, Verses, published by Roberts Brothers that year.

Publishers began to hire artists to design book covers as the Arts and Crafts Movement began to inspire a desire among the buying public for beautiful everyday objects. There was a new demand for pretty books. Technological advances were making more bookcloth and stamping ink color choices available, and an artist’s eye was needed to make intelligent use of them.

 In one of her talks with art students, Whitman summed up the main challenge in designing covers for mass produced books: “think how to apply elements of design to these cheaply sold books; to put the touch of art on this thing that is going to be produced at a level price (Whitman, Notes, p.5).”

Whitman’s book cover designs were restrained. She often designed covers that required gold stamping alone. An example is The Martyrs’ Idyl by Louise Imogen Guiney. This cover is an example of another design signature of Whitman’s. She sometimes ran the design element, often a flowering plant, right through the lettering.

Whitman’s designs were influenced by Art Nouveau, an art movement most popular between 1890-1910 that emphasized long, elegant, flowing, and curving lines inspired by organic forms. In the case of Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau, Whitman featured the sinuous form of milkweed.

A Native of Winby was one of many covers Whitman designed for books by Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett was a good friend of Whitman’s, and they corresponded about Whitman’s cover design ideas. They agreed that Whitman would use mayflowers on the cover for Jewett’s book, A Native of Winby and Other Tales, in honor of the mayflowers in the first line of Jewett’s story, “A Native of Winby” that begins, “on the teacher’s desk, in the little roadside school-house, there was a bunch of Mayflowers, beside a dented and bent brass bell (Jewett, Native, p.1).”

Left: image of a stained glass window. Middle: a gray cover with a gold stamp depicting cross and rose. Right: green cover with gold stamped leaves and title.
Left: Fanny Mason house window, c. 1897, Boston Athenaeum. Middle: The Martyrs’ Idyl by Louise Imogen Guiney, Houghton Mifflin, 1899, gold stamped wild rose and cross on gray paper. Right: Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau, Houghton Mifflin, 1896, gold stamped milkweed on green cloth. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Whitman continued to use mayflowers on cover designs for several later books by Jewett including The Country of the Pointed Firs and The Queen’s Twin. These two covers are examples of another feature of some of Whitman’s designs, flowers with heart-shaped roots.

Whitman liked the three-piece book design, one cloth for the spine and another for the front and back covers. She often chose the cloth herself, defending her choices in letters to George Mifflin, and sometimes requesting additional cloth samples from him to choose from. One of many examples is by Louise Chandler Moulton.

Seven of Whitman’s cover designs include her monogram, a flaming heart with her initials SW inside. For Betty Leicester, Whitman placed her monogram at the bottom center as part of the heart-shaped root of the red chrysanthemum.

Clockwise from top left: green and white book cover with gold leaf lamp and title; red and white book cover with red stamped dandelion and title; dark green book cover with gold flower and title; lighter green book cover with yellow-gold flowers and title; black book cover with silver flower and heart detail and title.
Clockwise from top left: In the Garden of Dreams by Louise Chandler Moulton, Roberts Brothers, 1893, three-piece cloth (green and white) design with gold stamped poppy; Betty Leicester by Sarah Orne Jewett, Houghton Mifflin, 1890, three-piece cloth (red and white) design with red stamped chrysanthemum, Whitman’s rustic lettering, SW monogram; The Queen’s Twin by Sarah Orne Jewett, Houghton Mifflin, 1899, silver (aluminum and palladium) stamped mayflowers on brown cloth, SW monogram bottom center; The Country of Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, Houghton Mifflin, 1896, gold stamped mayflowers on green cloth; A Native of Winby and Other Stories by Sarah Orne Jewett, Houghton Mifflin, 1890, gold stamped mayflower on green cloth. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Whitman developed her own lettering styles, described by Sue Allen as rustic and inscriptional (Allen, RBS #423). Her rustic “A” has a flat top with a bar on it. The “E” is curved like an epsilon, the “G” is an inward spiral, and the “S” is open with a trailing tail. The crossbars of “A” and “H” are set high, and “B,” “P,” and “R” are smaller on top and longer on the bottom as in Betty Leicester by Sarah Orne Jewett, Passe Rose and A Native of Winby and Other Tales.

Her inscriptional letters have straight edges. The “E” has a straight stem, a longer middle crossbar, and shorter arms. There is a dot between each word as in Tiverton Tales by Alice Brown.

Japanese Girls and Women by Alice Mabel Bacon is an example for how she sometimes mixed the two lettering styles.

Left to right: a white background with a closeup of a red monogram; gold, white, and purple stamped iris on green cover; blue-green book cover with siler stamped detail.
Left: Betty Leicester by Sarah Orne Jewett, Houghton Mifflin, 1890, detail of SW monogram. Middle: Tiverton Tales by Alice Brown, Houghton Mifflin, 1899, gold, white and purple stamped iris on green linen, inscriptional lettering, Japanese inspired design. Right: Japanese Girls and Women by Alice Mabel Bacon, Houghton Mifflin, 1891, silver (aluminum and palladium) stamping on green cloth, Whitman’s mix of her rustic and inscriptional lettering styles. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Some of Whitman’s book cover designs are inspired by Japanese art, an influence on many artists of the period, following Commodore Perry’s visit to Japan in 1853. An example is A Few More Verses by Susan Coolidge. This cover, among others by Whitman, has at its center a Japanese design element called a mon, a family crest or a symbol of an organization in Japan. There are hundreds of mon designs. Tiverton Tales by Alice Brown is another example of a Japanese mon inspired design.

There is sometimes a suggestion of medieval book furniture such as clasps and straps in Whitman’s designs. This representation of a functional design element from the past, such as metal clasps to keep the book closed, used later for purely decorative purposes is called skeuomorphic. Examples of skeuomorphic designs by Whitman are Dorothy Q by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Day and Night Stories by Thomas Russell Sullivan, with their decorative suggestions of clasps.

Clockwise from top left: brown book cover with gold stamp detail and title; closeup of gold stamp Japanese style detail; green and white book cover with gold stamp detail and title. Black book cover with silver stamp detail and title.
Clockwise from top left: A Few More Verses by Susan Coolidge, Roberts Brothers, 1889, Japanese mon inspired design; A Few More Verses by Susan Coolidge, Roberts Brothers, 1889, detail of Japanese mon inspired design; Day and Night Stories by Thomas Russell Sullivan, Scribner, 1890, three-piece design, green and white cloth, suggestion of medieval book clasp stamped in gold; Dorothy Q by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Houghton Mifflin, 1893, silver (aluminum and palladium) stamping on charcoal cloth, suggestion of medieval book clasps. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Whitman sometimes featured wreaths in her book cover designs as she did in her stained-glass window designs. Two examples are The Life of Nancy (1895) and Betty Leicester’s Christmas (1899), both by Sarah Orne Jewett. Whitman used mayflowers in both wreathes, and on the back cover of Betty Leicester’s Christmas, she placed a single mayflower.

Left: green book cover with gold stamp detail and title; middle: white paper with multicolor mayflower wreath and monogram; Right: white paper with mayflower design.
Left: The Life of Nancy by Sarah Orne Jewett, Houghton Mifflin, 1895, wreath of mayflowers, gold stamping on green cloth; Middle: Betty Leicester’s Christmas by Sarah Orne Jewett, Houghton Mifflin, 1899, wreath of mayflowers and SW monogram on front cover; Right: Betty Leicester’s Christmas by Sarah Orne Jewett, Houghton Mifflin, 1899, Mayflower design on back cover. Photos by Leslie Long.

 

Jewett expressed her appreciation for Whitman’s cover design for Betty Leicester in the first line of its sequel Betty Leicester’s Christmas: “there was once a story-book girl named Betty Leicester, who lived in a small square book bound in scarlet and white (Jewett, Betty Leicester’s Christmas, p.1).”

Whitman designed one endsheet that appeared in three books: Venetian Life by William Dean Howells (1892), William Wordsworth’s Pastorals, Lyrics, & Sonnets (1890), and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1891). In Stowe’s book, the endsheet’s background color is green. All three were published by Houghton Mifflin.

Detail image of endsheet design featuring copper/brown colored flowers and swirls.
Whitman’s endsheet design. Photo by Leslie Long.

 

While no complete list of Whitman’s cover designs has been published, a partial list can be found in Decorated Cloth in America (Allen and Gullans, pp. 97-107). Whitman is just one of several accomplished 19th century book cover designers. If you would like to learn more, you can watch a recording of Leslie Long’s wonderful presentation featuring Whitman and several others.

Sources and further readings:

Allen, Sue. The Book Cover Art of Sarah Wyman Whitman. Boston: The Society of Printers, 2011.

Allen, Sue and Charles B. Gullans. Decorated Cloth in America: Publishers’ Bindings 1840-1910. UCLA, 1994: 59-75.

Allen, Sue. The Book Cover Art of Sarah Wyman Whitman. Rare Book School Lecture #423, July 14, 1999.

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.

Chapman, John Jay. Memories and Milestones. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1915.

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

Jewett, Sarah Orne. Betty Leicester’s Christmas. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1899.

Kitts, Adrienne. Allusion and Imagery in the Book Art of Sarah Wyman Whitman, Catalogue 1. Austin Abbey Rare Books, 2018.

Kitts, Adrienne. Allusion and Imagery in the Book Art of Sarah Wyman Whitman, Catalogue 2. Austin Abbey Rare Books, 2019.

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

O’Gorman, James, ed. The Makers of Trinity Church in the City of Boston. U Mass: Amherst, 2004.

Walker, Stuart. Mrs. Whitman at Home  A Catalogue of an Exhibition of Books Designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman. Boston:  Club of Odd Volumes, 2021.

Whitman, Sarah Wyman. Letters of Sarah Wyman Whitman. Cambridge, MA:  Riverside Press, 1907.

Whitman, Sarah Wyman. Notes of an informal talk, Boston Art Students Association, Feb. 14, 1895. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=hvd.32044019181692&seq=1

 

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