Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944) was an author, book cover designer, field collector, and botanical illustrator. She was among the most influential designers of her time and a source of inspiration for other female book cover designers and future generations including Amy M. Sacker, Lee Thayer, and Marion Louise Peabody.
Armstrong’s first book cover design, Sweet William by Marguerite Bouvet, was published in 1890. Early in her career she met reluctance placing her designs with publishers, as the field of book cover design was dominated by men. To surmount this challenge, she signed her early submissions “M.N. Armstrong.” However, the years 1892–93 were groundbreaking for women book cover designers: several important exhibitions in prominent clubs and at the World’s Columbian Exposition featured women designers and paved the way for the success they enjoyed during the next decades.
As Armstrong’s career as a book designer progressed, her designs became more fluid and individualized, reflecting the book’s subject. With her increasingly colorful, striking book covers, she was in demand as a designer and worked for twenty-one different publishers producing approximately 270 book cover designs.
Spring Blossoms: Margaret Armstrong’s Decorated Publishers’ Bindings, Watson Library’s first online exhibition, presents a selection of books with covers designed by Armstrong from the 1890s to 1913. The exhibit highlights four themes: designs that invoke the patterns of stained glass, the lavender series of publications by Myrtle Reed, designs featuring flowers and plant forms, and lesser-known book covers.
The first part of the exhibition features a selection of Armstrong bindings which resemble stained glass. Armstrong’s father, David Maitland Armstrong (1836–1918) was a stained glass artist and painter. Her sister, Helen Maitland Armstrong (1869–1948), was also a well-regarded stained glass artist who worked both with her father and independently. Although Margaret rarely worked with windows herself, she designed the decorative lilies bouquet for the George and Mary Morris Memorial Window (ca. 1914) at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Green Cove Springs, Florida.
Armstrong’s adaption of the stained glass technique appearing on one third of her book cover designs is achieved by forming a design from separate parts: outlining each shape with another color, often gold, or the cloth color itself, which forms the overall design within a vertical panel.
The best known of her stained glass book covers is the Henry Van Dyke series published between 1901 to 1927, mostly printed on dark blue cloth with gold stamping and ornamental symmetrical designs.
Author Myrtle Reed had success with her novel Lavender and Old Lace (1902), and thereafter all fifteen of her books published by G.P. Putnam's Sons were designed by Armstrong and covered in this distinctive lavender ribbed cloth. Five of the seven lavender titles in Watson’s Collection are featured in this exhibition.
Indicating their popularity and broad appeal, the Myrtle Reed bindings were published in variant bindings. In 1902, Lavender and Old Lace was advertised as being available in four bindings: vertically ribbed lavender cloth, red leather, grey ooze leather (leather produced from calfskin with a soft velvety or suede finish) and lavender silk. The Master’s Violin (1906) was the first to be issued in all four bindings upon publication; thereafter all the books were made available in the four bindings. Almost all of the Myrtle Reed titles were eventually issued in a slip case with the cover design printed on one or both sides of the slip case in a pale lavender color.
Plants and Flowers
The third part of the exhibition features Armstrong’s use of flowers and plant forms as design motifs for her bindings. Armstrong was also an author, field collector and botanical illustrator. After traveling for four years throughout the Western United States and Canada in 1911–1914, she wrote and illustrated the first comprehensive guide to wildflowers of the American west, Field Book of Western Wild Flowers (1915). Her love of nature was often reflected in her book cover design with copious flower, vine, and plant themes.
Lesser Known Designs
The last part of the exhibition, spanning a decade of Armstrong’s book covers, considers her lesser-known designs. They differ from her distinctive symmetrical or stained glass designs, and often have a muted palette or an unusual typeface.