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The Book Beautiful

Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944) made books beautiful. As a young woman, Margaret Armstrong entered the emerging field of book cover art and design in the late 1880’s. It wouldn’t be long before her beautiful book cover designs would take her to the top of the male dominated profession and firmly place her as an important figure in the world of the book arts. In this man’s world, Margaret Armstrong was a pioneer in the field of decorated cloth binding designs. As one of the first women to enter this new field, she would soon make a name for herself that would be recognized by publishers and the book buying public alike for her beautiful and intricate designs. From 1887 to 1915 Margaret Armstrong was a leading force in shaping the art of book cover designs.    

A recent exhibition, May 18 – June 13, held in the Rockefeller Gallery in the Charles C. Wise Library featured the book cover designs of Margaret Armstrong from the WVU rare books collection. From her first book cover design created when she was 19 years old and published in 1887, to the designs of her later years in the 1910’s that boldly splashed color and form across their covers, the book art of Margaret Armstrong is one of WVU’s treasured collections. 

The exhibition, “The Book Beautiful: Margaret Armstrong & Her Bindings,” first opened at the New York Society Library on January 16, 2020. The Downtown Library and the West Virginia and Regional History Center worked in collaboration with the NYSL to bring their exhibition of the beautiful binding designs of Margret Armstrong to West Virginia. 

Lowell Thing, the foremost authority on the life and art of Margaret Armstrong, was the guest speaker for the exhibition opening held in the Milano Room in the Charles C. Wise Library. His talk, “Cover Treasure: The Adventures of a Margaret Armstrong Collector,” recounted 30 years as a collector of books designed by Armstrong. His new book, “Cover Treasure, The Life and Art of Margaret Armstrong,” is forthcoming from Black Dome Press.  

  Margaret Armstrong

A collection of book covers designed by Margaret Armstrong, located at the West Virginia and Regional History Center

The book cover designs Armstrong created in the late 19th and early 20th century form an important moment in book history resulting in a revolutionary change in book production. Margaret Armstrong arrived just as the industrial, machine-made book, bound in cloth and decorated with designs in gold, silver and multicolored inks became possible. It was at this moment that publishers began to commission artists to design decorative covers. The prevailing thought was that decorative covers designed by artists could be used as a marketing tool to increase sales and make books more attractive to the reading public. When book cover design was in its infancy and as yet an unproven force in the marketplace, publishers often imposed cost limits that determined the scope of the designs, but within these design limitations fine work could be achieved.  Margaret Armstrong designed her first book covers within a prescribed budget and achieved great artistic success. What others might view as constraints, she saw as a framework. Armstrong’s early covers, such as “How to Listen to Music” by H.E. Krehbiel, featured delicate designs, like the simple interplay of notes she created to form a frame for the title. These intricate ornaments merely accented the book in contrast to the designs of her later years that would boldly cover the entire surface of the book’s cloth with color and design.    

The book cover designs Armstrong created in the late 19th and early 20th century form an important moment in book history resulting in a revolutionary change in book production.

Darker cloth colors that had been the norm began to lighten and brighten under her touch, and decorations became more fluid versus the machine shop orientation of straight lines and right angles used earlier. As these designs became more lucrative for publishers, the cost limitations were lifted and Armstrong was free to spread her art across the entire surface of the book, using more gold, more color. Margaret Armstrong’s designs drew upon the sinuous art forms of Art Noveau with the delicate interweaving of plants, hand-drawn lettering for titles, and exquisite use of color, as shown below, that drew customers to purchase books bound with her cover designs.   

Among the first to “sign” her work, Armstrong devised a monogram using her initials, MA. As she designed it, the M and A overlap to form a concise monogram that could easily be tucked into a corner of a design, recognizable but discrete and unobtrusive.  

Decorated book covers are much more than a pretty picture, they also serve as evidence of material and print culture. Armstrong’s designs illustrate an important period in the history of the book by providing a window on publishers’ daily business operations: the promotion and marketing of books to the general public. Margaret Armstrong’s designs put art in the hands of everyone. This exhibition allowed attendees to see her growth as an artist first hand, to luxuriate in the colors, designs, styles and decorations created by Margaret Armstrong over 100 years ago. 

The books in this exhibition as well as many others designed by Armstrong are part of the WVU rare books collection. A web page on the exhibition and the book art of Margaret Armstrong can be found on the WVRHC website