Judging A Book By Its Cover

Book Illustrator Margaret Armstrong Continues To Engage Collectors

August 6, 2013

While her name might not be readily recognizable, artist Margaret Armstrong's works have been appreciated and collected for a more than a century.
Armstrong illustrated more than 270 book covers in her lifetime, from 1867 to 1944.
Collectors of rare books might recognize the flowers, plants and vines the nature-lover included in her designs. She used bright colors, such as lavender, red and green, and her designs were often stamped in gold.
Armstrong illustrated multiple books by some authors, including Henry Van Dyke, Myrtle Reed, Paul Bourget and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Dave Moyer, owner of Moyer's Book Barn in Strasburg, Pa., said that in the past, illustrators did not get the credit they do today. Moyer, who descends from a family of artists, said when illustrators signed their names, it was often in the form of their initials in the image. Armstrong only began including her "MA" in 1895, when other artists, called imitators, began replicating her style. Even then, she did not always sign her works.
Armstrong, the daughter of David Maitland Armstrong who owned property along the Hudson, was born in New York. She showed her creative side as a child with her sister, Helen, who became a stained glass artist.
Her brother Hamilton Fish Armstrong, in a book called “Those Days,” said of Margaret, "She started a vogue for making the book covers themselves artistic and distinctive, and her covers became a sort of identity tag for the author."
"Whenever I see the dark blue and gold design on the spine of some book on a library shelf, I have recognized it as Henry van Dyke's, even before Margaret's distinctive lettering tells me so," he added.
Enter Myrtle Reed.
The Norwood Park, Ill., native established her career as a romance writer in 1902 with the release of "Lavender and Old Lace" in a lavender/mauve Margaret Armstrong binding.
Reed's works between 1898 to 1911 were immensely popular best-sellers of their time. Even Theodore Roosevelt wrote her a fan letter after reading "The Book of Clever Beasts," one of her few books not illustrated by Armstrong.
Ironically, booksellers today say that Reed titles are collected as much, if not more, for their Armstrong covers, rather than for the words they contain.
Hamiliton Fish Armstrong, regarding the Reed books, said, "In most cases she (Armstrong) could follow her own wishes, but occasionally was called upon to match her style to that of the author, which might be terrible. Thus, the saccharin mauve color which she devised for the first Myrtle Reed novel was so exactly right that she had to perpetuate it with variations through all the rest of that immensely popular and long-forgotten author's string of works."
Reed, from her perspective, lamented to readers that she had no influence on the covers, saying she was only the "little bird" that wrote them.
Whether or not the author and illustrator were happy about being matched up by Putnams, the combination helped both careers. Reed titles from 1898 to 1911 remain collectible. Moyer pointed to a shelf space that once held as many as 25 of Reed's books. He has since sold out. Biographies on Armstrong nearly always list her Myrtle Reed covers.
The Reed bindings, including “The Master's Violin” and “At the Sign of the Jack O'Lantern,” were mostly a light blue to mauve color with gold letters. In some cases, one or two other colors of ink were also used. On “The Master of the Vineyard,” for example, the grapes are a deep purple. Some books came in red, pale gray, brown suede leather and dark blue. Many came with slip cases matching the cover.
In her 40s, Armstrong took fewer illustrating jobs in order to travel and concentrate on her own books, including “The Field Book of Western Wildflowers” and those of her father and brother.
At least two universities have featured Margaret Armstrong covers in exhibitions, including the University of Rochester and George Mason University.
Identifying Armstrong's works becomes difficult when, in addition to the unsigned covers, at least one Reed title, “A Spinner in the Sun,” contains the initials “SH.” The mysterious change of initials, along with the imitators' works, makes research advisable for positive identification.
In 1968, Charles B. Gullans and John Jenkins Espey published a useful resource, titled, "Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Bindings: With a Checklist of Her Designed Bindings and Covers.” The authors, in an introduction to a 1991 edition, said when they first wrote the book, they had no idea that the price of books with Margaret Armstrong covers, which then sold for between 50 cents to $1.50, would rise to $20 and higher. In 2011, Nabu Press printed a trade paperback edition of the Gullans and Espey work.


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