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Women's History Month

Designing Women: The Art of Cloth Bindings

Publishers' cloth bindings flourished during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Before this time, books were usually sold in loose sheets; it was up to the buyers to have the printed pages bound according to their taste and means. Once the process of bookbinding began to be industrialized and automated, publishers could requisition large numbers of identical bindings for an entire edition of a book. They were quick to realize that this provided a new opportunity for branding and advertising, and these publishers' cloth bindings (also called case bindings, after the way the printed pages were adhered to the binding's outer shell) soon evolved into colorful, visually arresting works of practical art. Their designers exercised creativity against constraints of time and cost, generating a large corpus of material until the more economical dust jacket took hold as the book's decorative outer element.

Bibliographers generally consider the height of publishers' cloth design to begin around 1880. At this time, bindings were increasingly designed by artists, rather than the craftsmen who performed the physical task of binding and decoration. These artists often "signed" their work by including a monogram or small identifying icon within the overall design.

Sarah Wyman Whitman

Sarah Wyman Whitman's Monogram
Sarah Whitman's Monogram

One of the earliest female cover designers was Sarah Wyman Whitman, an artist by training who studied under William Morris Hunt and specialized in stained glass. She was hired by Houghton Mifflin in the early 1880s and dominated their book design for almost two decades. Whitman was extremely influential on later designers; her spare, elegant designs stood out from the busier covers of her predecessors and contemporaries. She favored stylized floral and abstract decorative motifs, often imitating features of bespoke bindings like clasps and bands. She is also recognizable by her distinctive alphabet and a tendency to carry over design elements from front to back covers. (Read Allen for more.)

A selection of book covers designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman
A selection of book covers designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman. NYPL Rare Book Division.

Margaret Armstrong

Margaret Armstrong's Monogram
Margaret Armstrong's Monogram

A standout designer of the next "wave," Margaret Armstrong had a background in painting before designing her first cover in 1890 at the age of 23. She was based in New York and designed predominantly, but not exclusively, for Scribner. Like Whitman, Armstrong favored abstract and floral designs, but she typically preferred a wider color palette and less empty space for her covers. She often repeated similar looks and themes for a particular author; the dark blue Van Dyke cover reproduced below is one example of this. (Read Gullans for more.

A selection of book covers designed by Margaret Armstrong
A selection of book covers designed by Margaret Armstrong. NYPL Rare Book Division.

Amy Sacker

Amy Sacker's Monogram
Amy Sacker's Monogram

Amy Sacker followed (and overlapped with) Armstrong, beginning her output in the early 1890s and working through the 1920s. A Bostonian like Whitman, she studied at the Museum of Fine Arts and later taught decorative design at both Cowles Art School and her own institution, the Sacker School of Design and Interior Decoration. Sacker worked as an illustrator, book plate artist, and cover designer. She is best known for employing the "poster style," which rose in popularity at the turn of the century and was typified by clean lines, bright colors, and figurative imagery. However, you can also find Sacker bindings with more ornate and Art Nouveau-inspired elements. (Read Schumacher for more.)

A selection of book covers designed by Amy Sacker
A selection of book covers designed by Amy Sacker, illustrating her Art Nouveau and poster styles. Image courtesy

While I've highlighted these three designers in particular, you can find many others in our collections: Alice C. Morse, Marion Peabody, and Lee Thayer of the Decorative Designers firm to name just a few!

Finding Publishers' Cloth Bindings at NYPL

These decorative bindings are dispersed across multiple divisions at NYPL, including the Rare Book Division and the Berg Collection, but there is a sizeable number in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building's General Research Division. Finding examples of these bindings within the larger library collection, however, can be challenging. Library catalog records do not always record the identity of the binder, and a given book may have been subsequently rebound in a plain, durable "library" binding. So how can the interested researcher locate these items? I like to use a combination of print and online reference material in my sleuthing.

First, I check to see if the library catalog happens to mention a binder. While infrequent, it does happen, so why not make it easier on yourself and give it a try? In the research catalog, search the Author field for your binder. Searching for Sarah Wyman Whitman, for example, yields three potential author entries and 31 potential books to investigate.

Search for author Sarah Wyman Whitman in the NYPL research catalog
A search by author for Sarah Wyman Whitman in the NYPL research catalog

Next, see if there is a published checklist of the binder's output. This is likelier for more well-known designers. Sarah Wyman Whitman is covered (no pun intended) in Decorated Cloth in America: Publishers' Bindings, 1840-1910, and Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Bindings includes a checklist of her work. Even if the binder does not have an entire volume dedicated to her, she might be included in overviews like the excellent The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930. (Author Richard Minsky also has a blog and online gallery.)

There are also several websites devoted to images of publishers' cloth bindings. The University of Alabama has an extensive digital collection with the ability to search by designer, as does the University of Rochester. You can use these print and digital sources to identify appropriate books, then search our catalog to see if we hold them.

If you're really digging deep, consider viewing trade publications of the period. In their coverage of new book releases, these publications may specify the binding designer responsible. We have publications like these in our online databases: American Periodicals, for example, includes both The Book Buyer and The Critic. These issues are fully text searchable, so you can search for specific designers by name. This database is also available outside of the library with a valid library card, so you can start your research right at home.

Another ally in the study of cover design is HathiTrust. This freely-available website contains searchable, digitized book and periodical content from sources such as Google Books and the Internet Archive. You may have seen courtesy links to HathiTrust in some of our catalog records. NYPL is an institutional partner and content contributor to HathiTrust, so many of our public domain materials, including a number of publishers' cloth bindings, are available to view for free online. After searching for the title of the book, you can use the filters on the left-hand side of the page to narrow down your results. If "New York Public Library" is available under the Original Location filter, you can potentially view our digitized copy of the book in question. The quality of the image may not be ideal, but you can confirm the existence of a publishers' cloth binding (rather than a library binding) before visiting the library and requesting the physical item.

Search for title in HathiTrust with resulting cover image
A search for The Blue Flower in HathiTrust, with filters to find the NYPL copy. To the right, the cover for NYPL's copy of The Blue Flower, designed by Margaret Armstrong and stored in HathiTrust.

Interested in learning more about these designers and their male peers? Use NYPL's print and online resources to explore these fun and functional works of art. If your preferred source for publishers' cloth binding research is not mentioned here, add it in the comments!


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Designing Women: The Art of Cloth Bindings

Thank you so much for featuring the women who designed these exquisite bindings!
I am aghast that NYPL not only defaces these important artworks by affixing gummed barcode labels directly to the surface, but then displays them publicly as though it's an OK thing to do! Please send these to the conservation department and have the labels removed without destroying the gold or other decoration, and establish a policy NOT to do this any more!

That's much better!

Thank you for taking care of that. It's a big improvement. R

A Lovely and Surprising Collection

Such a lovely collection from the hands of women printmakers. Thank you for sharing these artifacts and some of their stories.

I grew up in an old house

I grew up in an old house full of old books. This article is wonderful as it gives insight into some of the books I read and handled as a child. Thanks!

This is great!

I learned a lot from this post (and I will try even harder to identify and provide access for any and all binding designers, whenever possible, in my work)!

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