Alice C. Morse was an active and prominent designer in New York during the late nineteenth century when the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements transformed the field of decorative arts and created new working opportunities for women artists. Female decorative artists were the embodiment of these movements. They worked to benefit others and to support themselves as artists. Through making art and creating designs for others to copy, they imparted art to all aspects of daily life.
Born in Ohio, Alice C. Morse was raised in a middle-class family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As a young woman, she studied art and design at one of the few art schools open to women, the Woman’s Art School of the Cooper Union, in Manhattan. An undergraduate from 1879 through 1883, Morse specialized in drawing. After completing her undergraduate work, she continued to study art while embarking on a career as a designer. She attended a summer program at Alfred College and, for a year, studied stained glasswork with John La Farge. From 1885 to 1889, Morse was employed by the firm of Louis C. Tiffany, where she worked in the women’s glass studio painting glass and studying design. During this time, she is known to have designed at least seventy stained-glass windows. By 1887, Morse had received her first commissions for book-cover designs and began to consider a career change. She left the Tiffany firm to return to Cooper Union, where she attended postgraduate courses in art from 1889 to 1891.
In 1893, Morse chaired the Sub-Committee on Book-Covers, Wood Engraving, and Illustration of the Board of Women Managers for the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition. Her contributions included authoring “Women Illustrators” for Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building, the official handbook to the Woman’s Building, and the creation of an exhibition of her book covers for which she was awarded a diploma and medal. In addition to her work for the Woman’s Building and her independent career as a book-cover designer, Morse was employed as a designer for the New York Society of Decorative Art from 1893 to 1895. This organization, founded by Candace Wheeler in 1877, was dedicated to helping American women artists and artisans obtain training and employment. Its threefold mission included sponsoring courses for women in art needlework and related crafts; providing a venue for the sale and marketing of high-quality decorative goods made by women; and improving the quality of household decorations through exhibitions and lectures. Although Morse increasingly focused on designing book covers, she continued to publish designs for china painting, needlework, and other media that could be copied by others.
Morse was a major competitor in the field of artist-designed book covers from 1887 to 1905, during which time she created no fewer than eighty-three covers for many of New York City’s preeminent publishers. Throughout her career, Morse’s commissions included book-cover designs and occasionally illustrations for books on every subject, by both famous and lesser-known authors. Considered by her publishers to be a tasteful and dependable designer, Morse was often charged with designing covers for expensive publications. Her publishers often submitted her original designs and sample book covers to exhibitions of applied arts and book arts in New York City. These were held between 1889 and 1895 at the Aldine Club, an organization whose members consisted of important publishers, authors, and artists; the Grolier Club, whose membership included collectors of rare and beautiful books; and the New York Architectural League, which held annual exhibitions of the fine and applied arts. Morse had two substantial competitors during most of her career: Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842–1904) and Margaret Armstrong (1867–1944). Design and publishing communities considered the three women to be foremost among their generation of designers. Morse’s approach to design differed from that of Whitman and Armstrong, who had characteristic styles of drawing and recognizable color palettes. Morse appears to have enjoyed working in many styles, while constantly adapting her designs both to complement each book’s theme and appeal to the widest audience. By the late 1890s, new and less expensive printing technologies were being developed to replace the beautiful, but expensive, gold-stamped covers such as those designed by Morse and her colleagues.
In 1896, Morse began a career in art education. After graduating from a teacher education course at Pratt Institute in 1897, she moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, to take a position as supervisor of art and drawing in the city’s public school system. After two years, Morse advanced to the position of supervisor of art and drawing for high schools. In 1917, she earned her final promotion to district supervisor. Morse retired from this position in September of 1923 and returned to New York City. That same year, Morse made a gift of her portfolio of fifty-eight book covers to the Metropolitan Museum, where they were promptly exhibited in the Museum library. Morse continued to live a long and active life in Manhattan.
Morse’s Book-Cover Designs
Morse was known for her knowledge of historic ornament and her expert ability to apply historic and modern ornament to book-cover design. While her early designs feature variations on classical ornament from Roman and Renaissance art (56.522.48), she soon began to experiment with motifs from other cultures and historical periods, including Celtic (56.522.95), Arabic, Gothic, Rococo (56.522.104), Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau (56.522.50), and pictorial styles. She also experimented with re-creating fine bindings of the sixteenth century; and considering the differences between the historic and modern bookbinding processes, it is surprising how well these designs retain the feeling of a traditional hand-tooled book. The decoration on a traditional hand-bound book was built up by the use of many small brass tools that were heated and pressed into the leather cover by hand; colors were applied with metal leaf, paint, or leather onlays. Morse needed to reinterpret these techniques for the modern book. This required her to draw a single design on paper using pen-and-ink and watercolor; the design would then be engraved onto brass dies and stamped onto cloth covers using a massive, heated press.
For each commission, Morse would present her publishers with two or three rough sketches. Once the publisher had chosen a design, Morse would prepare a finished colored drawing, specifying the colors of the design and the cloth. Depending on the cost and availability of materials, her choices would be accepted or modified and once the design was approved, the cover would be put into production. The books were bound using the efficient method of case binding, a commercial binding technique developed in the 1830s. In case binding, then as now, the covers of books are manufactured separately from the text blocks, usually with cloth as a covering material, but occasionally employing leather or paper. After the covers are made, they may then be stamped or embossed with a design. Once the stamping is complete, the covers are attached to the text blocks.
In order to transfer Morse’s hand-drawn designs to book covers, an engraver or die-sinker needed to transfer them, either by hand or mechanically, to one or more brass stamps, with one plate for each color in the design. Once the plates were cut, the design would be stamped onto the book covers with a steam- or gas-heated stamping press. Each cover was set on the press, face up. Gold and colored leaf or foils were laid onto the cover, and the head of the press raised up to stamp the design against the heated die. This process was repeated for each color in the design. The creative use of stamping in Morse’s work indicates that she had a thorough understanding of the techniques involved in the production of book covers, and it is possible that she collaborated with engravers to develop these varied and complex effects.
The career of Alice C. Morse exemplifies the rapidly changing role of women in culture and art in the late nineteenth century. In a competitive environment, when art and design were among the few occupations open to women, Morse excelled as a designer of stained glass, book covers, and other decorative objects.