Too often when looking at antique books we concentrate on the contents and ignore the covers, but some book covers are artworks in their own right and cannot be ignored, this is even more true with eBooks which are more and more causing content to be divorced from packaging.
In the early 20th century, before the advent of photographic covers and the common use of dust jackets, there was a renaissance in book cover design and decoration. Artists were hired by major publishers to decorate the covers of high dollar editions by major writers, producing some striking examples of applied art in the Art Nouveau or in some cases Art Deco style.
Designers began to specialize in these elaborate book covers. One of the most successful of these was Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944) who designed over 300 covers between 1890 and 1940, about half of them for Scribner’s. Armstrong’s cover designs were frequently featured on books by Henry Van Dyke and John Greenleaf Whittier, illustrated editions for which she sometime also designed endpapers and title pages, and did some custom lettering.
Armstrong was also an author in her own right, writing and illustrating books about flowers and her designs are clearly informed by that interest. She also decorated the covers of her own books, like Western Wild Flowers, shown to the left.
Armstrong’s designs are truly outstanding examples of Art Nouveau and they enhanced any book which they graced and she has left behind a substantial and impressive body of work.
You can find 16 of Margaret Armstrong’s designs here. For more on antique book cover design see the The Art of American Book Colors blog. We also offer a collection of floral borders based on Armstrong’s designs.