Posted by: Pam Hackbart-Dean | February 27, 2017

The Golden Age of American Book Covers

In the 1870’s, book cover art in the United States entered a “Golden Age” that lasted more than fifty years. Some of the work is startling for its prescience and can be associated with art movements that occurred decades after the books were produced.1

Unlike fine bindings of an earlier age, displayed with spines facing out, books with beautiful ornamental covers were designed to be seen from all angles.

By the 1890’s, book-cover art had become so popular that publishers began to use individual artist’s names to sell books. Since this was not generally the case earlier, many great cover illustrations, unsigned, remain unidentified as to the artist.

By 1894, American artists’ monograms or devices regularly appeared on book covers to make their work more easily identifiable. These took various forms: Sarah Whitman used a flaming heart with her initials; W. W. Denslow was known by his stylized sea horse; Earl Stetson Crawford by a crowned “C.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, more than 200 monograms or devices were in use.2 (See poster of some of these monograms.)

The influences on book-cover art are many. American book-cover art may have first been inspired by British decorative books, since many of the major American publishing houses had offices in London. This exhibit lists some of the artistic movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries and attempts to give examples of how each influenced cover art.

One must realize, however, that many artists and illustrators used a combination or fusion of styles and that artists across the country were aware of, and influenced by, the work of others. This makes it harder to identify many of the unsigned illustrations. In most cases, this curator has also attempted to represent influences, rather than rigidly attaching an artist to a particular movement.

The decline of book-cover art was precipitated by the rising popularity of pictorial dust jackets, as well as the First World War and the Great Depression—the time and labor needed to create lavish bindings could no longer be justified.

[1] Minsky, Richard. The Art of American Book Covers, 1875-1930. New York: George Braziller, Inc. 2010, 9.

[2] Ibid., 9.

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