Skip to main content
ISU University Museums
Main Content

Don't (or Do!) judge a book by its cover

Posted on 08/13/2020 at 09:00 AM by Allison Sheridan



The first impression of a book is its cover design. Whether basic or elaborate, dust jacket or embossed leather, the cover of a book is habitually the first thing a reader visually decodes. We do often judge a book by its cover – even if we are told not too!

A book’s cover design, literally its packaging, is its strongest marketing tool. Looking back in history to the gilded and bejeweled book covers of the Middle Ages with beautifully illuminated manuscripts, then the innovation of the Gutenberg Press in 1450 with sewn page binding, to covers (often leather with gold embossing) as protection for the interior pages that in the latter centuries, the book cover has evolved to form an important part of the presentation and protection of literature.

In the Farm House Museum’s collection of books, dating from the 1800s to the early 1900s, are many rich examples of Victorian Era book cover designs including chromolithography, embossing, gilded designs, and detailed illustrations and fanciful fonts. Influences from Japanese designs, Art Nouveau botanicals, and famous fine artists and illustrators fill the shelves of the Farm House. One of the greatest designers of this genre was Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867-1944). She worked primarily for Scribner’s, completing at least 270 books for the publisher with a botanical and Art Nouveau motifs, six examples of her work are in the permanent collection (including Little Rivers by Henry Van Dyke, at right). As an aside, Armstrong’s father, David Maitland Armstrong, was an accomplished stained-glass designer who worked in the 1880s with Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Though often unseen by visitors as they are filed away in bookshelves, these colorful, intricate, inspiring and sometimes whimsical book covers reveal an attention to detail and the marketing prowess of Victorian publishers and book designers in both Europe and America. I have chosen a selection of my favorites to highlight this artful medium. The notion that book covers sell books was realized during this time period, a notion that still exists in today’s publishing world.

Read more about Margaret Armstrong.

IMAGE 1: Durbar by Mortimer Menpes. A & C Black, 1903. Gift of Ann and Henry Brunnier. In the Ann and Henry Brunnier Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 76.15.3

IMAGE 2: The Heart of Hyacinth by Onoto Watanna. Harper & Brothers, 1903. Gift of Mrs. Phillip Allen. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 80.12.26

IMAGE 3: In the Forest of Arden by Hamilton Wright Mabie, Will Hicok Low (Illustrator). Dodd, Mead and Company, 1898. In memory of Robert A. Wright, Estyle M. Wright, Mrs. A. L. Wright, Mrs. Ella M. Burke, Carroll, Iowa. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 86.5.35

IMAGE 4: An Old Sweetheart of Mine by James Whitcomb Riley, Cover design by Margaret Armstrong. Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1902. Gift of Alan Gibb. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 87.11.5


 

IMAGE 5: Festus by Philip James Bailey. Gift of the Robert A. Wright Estate.  In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 86.192

IMAGE 6: Trilby by George Du Maurier, Cover design by Margaret Armstrong. Harper & Brothers Publishers, First Edition 1894. Gift of Mrs. Phillip Allen. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 80.12.37

IMAGE 7: Buy Your Own Cherries by John W. Kirton. Gift of Debra Steilen. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 86.10.15

IMAGE 8: Pilgrim’s Progress Alta Edition, by John Bunyan. Porter & Coates. In memory of Robert A. Wright, Estyle M. Wright, Mrs. A. L. Wright and Ella M. Burke, Carroll, Iowa. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 86.5.40

IMAGE 9: A Watcher in the Woods by Dallas Lore Sharp. Century Co. Publishing, 1907. Gift of Alan Gibb. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 87.11.3

IMAGE 10: Little Rivers by Henry Van Dyke, Decorative trade binding by Margaret Armstrong, with her initials incorporated in the design. Published by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903. Gift of Alan Gibb. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 87.11.10

IMAGE 11: Beside The Bonnie Brier Bush by Ian MacLaren. Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1895. Gift of Alan Gibb. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 87.11.2

IMAGE 12: The Vision by Dante Aligheri. Gift of the Robert A. Wright Estate.  In the permanent collection, Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 86.207

IMAGE 13: Historic Homes in Washington by Mary S. Lockwood. c. 1907. Gift of Dennis Wendell. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 90.9.19

IMAGE 14: Gems from Riley (Coronal Series) by James Whitcomb Riley. DeWolfe, Fiske & Co., c. 1909. Gift of Neva Petersen. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 85.10.6

IMAGE 15: Stepping Stones to Literature: A Third Reader by Sarah Louise Arnold & Charles B. Gilbert. Silver Burdett Company, 1902. Gift of Jay Munn. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 76.31.59

IMAGE 16: Farm Ballads by Will Carleton. Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1873. Gift of Phyllis Heffron. In the Farm House Museum Collection, Farm House Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. 98.4.3

© 2020 University Museums, Iowa State University. All rights reserved.