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WVU Libraries acquires important Margaret Armstrong book binding collection

West Virginia University Libraries and the West Virginia and Regional History Center’s Rare Book Room have acquired what is considered to be the largest and most complete collection of works by Margaret Armstrong, noted book cover designer and illustrator of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Lowell and Suzanne Thing Collection of Margaret Armstrong Decorated Trade Bindings contains more than 550 books collected by Thing over 30 years, including books, sheet music, and ephemera designed by the artist.

Suzanne and Lowell Thing

Suzanne and Lowell Thing pose in the Libraries' Rare Book Room.

“Margaret Armstrong entered the emerging field of book cover art and design in the late 1880’s,” Rare Books Curator Stewart Plein said. “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.”

The Blue Flower

"The Blue Flower" is an example of how Margaret Armstrong incorporated her initals into her book cover design

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, Armstrong was a leading force in shaping the art of book cover designs.   

Lowell Thing was the keynote speaker at an exhibition held in the Libraries’ Rockefeller Gallery in May 2022 that featured the book cover designs of Armstrong from WVU’s rare books collection. Thing is also the author of the recently published book, “Cover Treasure – The Life and Art of Margaret Armstrong,” available from Black Dome Press.

Highlights of the collection include:

  • 306 of the 314 designs listed by Charles Gullans and John Espey in their landmark 1991 checklist from UCLA (all designs are shown in "Cover Treasure").  
  • Three previously unidentified books with bindings signed by the artist with her monogram and two unsigned bindings recently revealed to be her work.  
  • Examples of 59 dust jackets that came with her books including the only jacket known to have been designed by Armstrong, signed with her monogram. Included are four extremely rare dust jackets from 1894.
  • Two examples in pristine condition of publishers’ Christmas gift offerings with Armstrong’s bindings. Paul Leicester Ford’s "Wanted – A Matchmaker" in white cloth wrapped with a yellow ribbon and bow and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s "Sonnets from the Portuguese" in white satin brocade, both books in their original boxes.
  • Books with bindings designed by Margaret Armstrong from Margaret and her sister Helen’s private libraries and containing their own individual bookplates that each designed.
  • A number of scarce limited-edition versions of her bindings.
  • A rare copy of an early book from Vogue Magazine that includes illustrations by both Margaret and Helen Armstrong, one of a number of books in which they collaborated.
  • A salesman’s dummy of Henry Van Dyke’s "Out-of-Doors in the Holy Land" (1908).

Armstrong worked for 21 different publishers on a range of adult and juvenile fiction and nonfiction categories. The broad range of commissions over a number of years makes this collection a prime candidate for the examination of publishers’ offerings to the public during the 1890-1915 period. Titles also include works valued as literary first editions including Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” (1892) and Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera” (1911).

The Rare Books Collection, located within the West Virginia and Regional History Center on the sixth level of the Wise Library, contains rare books from 1330 to the 21st century. The collection is noted for its Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Early Modern, Botanical and Isaac Asimov collections.