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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

American Women Assert Arts and Crafts Ideals in Publishing at the Turn of the 20th Century

This posting is the second in a series on this blog that examines the contributions of particular women to the evolution of visual communication design.

The thinking that informed the ideologies that fueled the Arts and Crafts movement spread from Great Britain and France to the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Early advocates for a return to the utilization of craft traditions in book design and bookmaking, such as William Morris and his colleague Emery Walker, helped to champion an idea that they referred to as “the book beautiful” in the late 1880s. This concept challenged what was then a more-than-century-old and publishing-industry-wide tradition of producing poorly designed, badly produced and anything-but-durable books and other mass-produced printed materials. The work that emerged from Morris’ Kelmscott Press in the 1890s exemplified how employing what he referred to as “the guild model” of facilitating collaborative, ongoing relationships between highly skilled artisans such as typographers, typesetters, printers and bookbinders with gifted artists and people we would now refer to as “graphic designers” could yield results that were visually compelling, emotionally engaging and that were “designed to suit the contents they presented.”

The work that emerged from the Kelmscott Press and the ideas that Morris and his followers espoused had a profound effect on the design and printing of several widely read artists’ journals, as well on thousands of fine press and trade books published in western Europe and in the US during this period. The essential idea was that a book or manuscript was a “total object” that necessitated an approach to designing that ensured that its contents “as formulated by the author” would dictate the systemic organization and presentation of all of its text, images and binding materials. Not all of the attempts to emulate this work were successful, as it proved to be much easier to pay lip-service to these guidelines than it was to actually utilize them with any real success. (There are thousands of examples from European and American publishers from this period that formulaicly apply Arts and Crafts motifs and pseudo-medievalistic imagery to subject matter as diverse as American Wild West stories to accounts of scientific research being conducted in leading universities.)

As the proliferation of these well-intentioned-but-poorly-executed emulations of Arts and Crafts printed materials increased as the 19th century gave way to the 20th in the U.S., several American women began to build careers in the printing, typesetting and book publishing trades. It is noteworthy that several of these women were able to create bodies of work during this period that, unlike many of their male contemporaries, did NOT abuse or misappropriate Arts and Crafts ideas. An example of this is evidenced in the book design produced by Amy Sacker in 1902 for the commercial release of Charles G.D. Roberts’ The Kindred of the Wild, which effectively adapts Arts and Crafts principles to visually communicate the dramatic setting of the story without needlessly appropriating ornately decorative elements. Another example of an effectively adapted-yet-restrained application of an Arts and Crafts-influenced structure for a book design can be seen in these page spreads from Margaret Armstrong’s execution of Wanted: A Match-Maker by Paul Leicester Ford in 1900. Ford’s satire of the romantic machinations that occur within an upper-middle class, “East Coast American family” is well supported by Armstrong’s assertion of a light typographic texture and unobtrusive-yet-organically derived margin graphics.


The founding of The Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston in 1897 provided a select group of women a unique opportunity to shape innovations in the arenas of typography, illustration, calligraphy, bookbinding, advertising and illumination. Julia DeWolf Addison, Mary Crease Spears, Sarah Wyman Whitman and Amy Sacker were very active in this organization from its inception. Both Spears and Whitman taught workshops and even ran small schools that succeeded in providing women in this city employment outside of nursing and teaching that even the most conservative turn-of-the-20th-century Bostonians could approve of. The fact that a professional organization devoted to the advancement of what was then coming to be known as “the commercial application of art” would openly accept women into its membership was very unusual at that time. It would take almost 40 years for women to be accepted into other professional organizations devoted to the promotion of commercial art and graphic design.

To learn more about how women have affected the evolution of graphic design and advertising, please visit Willis Library at The University of North Texas and borrow (or, if you can afford to, purchase) this book:

Women Of Design: Influence And Inspiration From The Original Trailblazers To The New Groundbreakers by Armin Vit  and Bryony Gomez-Palacio

Finally, it’s very, very important that visitors to this blog root properly and enthusiastically for the Chicago Black Hawks hockey team as they endeavor to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup back to The Windy City later this evening for the first time since 1961.