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PERSPECTIVE: Discovering fanciful covers

Posted on December 17, 2020 at 3:00 PM by Kylea Mosley

As a first-year intern at the Farm House Museum, joining during an exciting whirlwind of a semester has been an adventure. Becoming a part of a fantastic team has made this semester even better. On my first day, the Farm House Museum manager, Allison Sheridan, instructed me to search the house and find something that piqued my interest to do an exhibition on. I've always been drawn to old books and embossed covers because the cover has its own fantastic story to tell, as well as the story it holds inside.

Going into my research, I learned about Margaret Neilson Armstrong from Allison. Allison had already written a blog post about book covers, so I took from her research and went around the Farm House to collect any books I could with Margaret's covers. There are only had a few books with covers illustrated by her in the Farm House collection, but they are so beautiful and exquisitely done. I also found that the Rare Books Collection at the University Library, held two additional examples of books with covers by Margaret and they graciously provided images for me to include in the exhibition.

Margaret was a prolific cover designer beginning her career in the 1880s when women's jobs in America were minimal. She designed over 270 covers before dust jackets began to take over, she then transitioned to writing and illustrating her own books about different plants and flowers. Her story and work are on exhibit online and in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Botanical Garden thus, having even a few of her examples here in the Farm House, feels like an honor.

My favorite of Margaret's covers is Trilby by George du Maurier. The cover demonstrates a spider weaving a hypnotizing web, much like the book's main character hypnotizing a young woman to love him. In today's views, the books contents may seem controversial. Margaret took this feature and used its symbolism to entice the reader into wondering what kind of story could be inside and what might a spider weaving a web have to do with anything?

The exhibition, titled Judging Books by Their Fanciful Covers, features a selection of books from the Farm House Museum's permanent collection and the two cover photographs from the Rare Books Collection. Although the Farm House Museum is currently closed for winter break, the exhibition will be on view in the Farm House library when it reopens January 25 through March 31.

When I tell people about my exhibition, I specifically talk about Margaret and her work. It feels incredible to get to continue educating about her legacy, even if it's only to a few people and student tours.

I am a senior history major and will be graduating in spring 2021, so I don't get to spend years in the Farm House learning about all of the objects it houses, but until then, I will continue to explore. I find something new nearly every day I'm there! Upon my graduation, I intend to get my master's degree in public history and continue working in museums and finding other little oddities and treasures to teach others about and keep the excitement of history alive.  

INSET IMAGE: University Museums' intern Kylea Mosley stands in the library of the Farm House Museum with her favorite book cover titled Trilby by George du Maurier and designed by Margaret Neilson Armstrong from her from her Judging Books by Their Fanciful Covers exhibition.

BELOW: Books from Judging Books by Their Fanciful Covers exhibition, which was curated by student intern Kylea Mosley. Although the Farm House Museum is currently closed for winter break, the exhibition will be on view in the Farm House library when it reopens January 25 through March 31.

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