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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Jeffrey Harding

I collect art that happens to be on the covers of books. Specifically, I collect decorated American trade bindings from about 1880 to 1925.

During that era the publishing business was revolutionized by the invention of machines that mass-produced books, making them affordable for ordinary folks. The great publishing houses found they could sell more books with attractive “modern” cover designs. To meet rising demand they hired artists and designers to create those designs, and a new venue opened for creative people.

This art of book cover design broke free of Victorian conventions and reflected the same schools of art that moved the art world at the time: Arts & Crafts, Art Nouveau, Japonisme, poster style, and early Modern. Many of the designs were unique, beyond conventional style categories.

This new artistic venue opened the doors for many women who are celebrated today as leading artists of this genre. I would estimate that perhaps half of the books in my collection were done by women. Margaret Armstrong, Sarah Wyman Whitman, Alice Morse, Blanche McManus, Bertha Stuart, Amy Sacker, Lee Thayer, and Marion Peabody were prolific artists whose work is highly collectible.

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Reuben Gold Thwaites.
Afloat on the Ohio.
Chicago: Way & Williams, 1897.

This remarkable full cover design is quite modern with a touch of Art Nouveau in the flowing chimney smoke. Vertical lines create the reflection of the shoreline in the river. This effect was created using only two colors on a background of gray cloth. Unfortunately, we have yet to identify the designer “CYR.”

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Mabel Clare Ervin.
As Told by the Typewriter Girl.
New York: E. R. Herrick and Co., 1898.

The designer, Blanche McManus Mansfield, created this whimsical mirror image design that extends across the spine. The “typewriter girl” is swathed in black typewriter ribbon. The fan-like design in the middle represents the type bar mechanism of a typewriter. The design pops out at you, yet she uses only two colors, red and black against the white cloth, to achieve this effect.

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Gilbert Parker.
Northern Lights.
New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1909.

This cover is a spectacular example of the printer’s art of the “split fountain.” These craftsmen had only mechanical presses to create the blending effect of a fading sunset turning from orange to gold. That was achieved by carefully blending two colors on the ink tray to accomplish the same result on thousands of books. The firm of Decorative Designers created this design.

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Charles Reade.
The Cloister and the Hearth, Vol. II.
New York: H. M. Caldwell Co., 1894.

This is one of the greatest Art Nouveau designs of this era. Designed on dark blue cloth, swirling green stems are outlined by gilt. The tulip bulbs are paste-on die-cut printed paper designs. The stems were stamped first, then the paper onlays were applied, and lastly the gold lines and titles were stamped on. Though not signed by the artist, it is believed that Ms. Lee Thayer of Decorative Designers was the designer.

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Lafcadio Hearn.
Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1900.

Shadowings is another famed design from this era. This wrap-around cover of lotus flowers is done in only two shades of blue against dark blue cloth. The stamped gilt titles stand out sharply to give it an elegant effect. This design, also by Lee Thayer of Decorative Designers, is considered to be one of her finest works.

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Harry Weston Van Dyke.
Through South America.
New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1912.

Margaret Armstrong was another prolific designer of hundreds of covers. This cover design was one of a series of covers she did for the prolific Van Dyke family of writers, each on dark blue cloth and each with a unique design. This remarkable cover was done in two colors, blue and green, but the elaborate use of gilt gives it a vibrant, energetic effect.