Friday, June 19, 2015

The flowers that bloom in the spring ...

Tra la!

I was taking a walk around campus the other day, idly kicking up grass toupees, when I passed a small enclosed garden with some beautiful blooms.  I can tell a pansy from a pie plate, but beyond that I'm fairly hopeless at plant identification.  Not so with many binding designers.  Among them the best botanist was probably Margaret Armstrong (1867-1944).  For collectors, researchers, and admirers of American trade bindings, Armstrong needs no introduction.  But unless you're able to see a large number of her bindings, it might not be obvious just how important an element nature was to her aesthetic.

Of her 300+ known designs well over half feature floral designs or motifs and her title page and text border designs usually also featured botanical elements.  We could say that this culminated in her 1915 title Field Book of Western Wild Flowers (Putnam 1915) for which she supplied not only the text but 550 illustrations.  With several other women, she traveled across the West and into Canada in search of specimens, and she and her friends were the first women to descend to the floor of the Grand Canyon.(1)  As Gullans and Espey describe her: “She was a fine, amateur botanist, and would later in her career become the nearest thing to a professional that one can be without the certifying academic degrees.” (2)  A selection of her designs seems the perfect way to close out this season.

So as the hot and steamy North Carolina spring gives way to the hotter and steamier North Carolina summer, I offer this posy of pictures of Margaret Armstrong bindings.  Some of them may be new to you and some may be old favorites.  Enjoy them all!

Let's start with a few on appropriate subjects in appropriately colored cloths. 

Frances Theodora Parsons, who usually wrote under the name Mrs. William Starr Dana, was a botanist who authored the first field guide to North American wildflowers, How to Know the Wildflowers (1893).  Armstrong did two covers for this book—for the 1893 edition and a different design for the 1895 edition.  An 1897 reprint of the second design is pictured at the head of this post.  According to Season was published in 1894 (left) and was issued again in 1902 with a completely different cover design also by Armstrong (and be sure to look at a third design for this title shown later in the post!)  She also designed the cover for Parson’s How to Know the Ferns (1899).  Her own Field Book of Western Wild Flowers (1915) was frequently reprinted on a number of surfaces including limp leather and a wide variety of cloth colors.  The Commuter’s Garden (1914) edited by Walter Hayward is an odd one.  Gullans and Espey note the “clumsy” lettering squashed into the small central space as not by Armstrong and speculate that the design was done earlier and adapted for this late (in Armstrong’s design career) printing.  However, no earlier book is known to have this design--perhaps Armstrong or the publisher, Crowell, for whom she did a number of covers, had it on hand.

Two classic designs for Victorian poets.  The Tennyson (1905) was issued in several cloth colors and features that essential garden accessory, the sundial.  Though difficult to see without enlarging the image, the blossoms on Pippa Passes (1900) are actually stamped on a rectangular cloth onlay which is pasted to the green cover cloth.

Here they are: the quintessential Margaret Armstrong designs.  Two representative covers from the Myrtle Reed “lavender” series and the Henry van Dyke “blue cloth” series.  If one knows no others, these designs leap off the shelves of used book stores shouting, “I am Margaret Armstrong.”  Though each cover design is distinctive in both series, the general look of them was  so well-known that a buyer could spot them from across a room just by their spines.  Armstrong did a dozen titles in each series over decades and the look of the covers became an essential part of books from these authors.  Even after she tired of working on these series, publishers continued to issue books with similar designs by other (unknown) designers in the characteristic cloths.  Both were continually reprinted, the Reed titles in particular, sometimes several times a year.  The Reed books were bound in a variety of materials other than the standard lavender cloth.  These include cloths in a darker lavender, lavender silk, green or gray, red leather, standard leather, and ooze leather (now called suede).  Some were housed in dust jackets and/or printed cardboard boxes.  Old Rose and Silver was first issued in September 1909; the copy pictured is the sixth printing from July 1910 (so at least six printings were called for in less than a year—hard to believe if you’ve tried to read it!)  The Blue Flower was issued in 1902.  Although Armstrong produced designs for a number of series, both for individual authors (Washington Irving and H.C. Bunner, for example) and for subjects (such as the “American summer resorts” series), none came close to the impact these two had on the reading public.

How do you like your days?  With, or without dogs?  (both published in 1904).

Published by Houghton Mifflin, The Tent on the Beach (1899) is considered one of Armstrong's masterpieces (there are many!)  Note that the gold stamping is in three forms:  gloss, matte, and embossed (the crabs at the foot of the cover).  The design was used on at least 5 colors of cloth, of which two are in the American Trade Bindings Collection.  

This design made an unexpected reappearance 91 years later on a Houghton Mifflin reprint of According to Season, by  Mrs. William Starr Dana.  Feel free to speculate on ... what were they thinking??  The cover has nothing to do with the contents, and why did it reappear at this time?  Did Houghton Mifflin still have "rights" to it?  Did it appear on any other titles in the intervening century?  Did Houghton Mifflin just need an "antique looking cover" to put on a reprint?  These kinds of questions and the odd byways of publishers' bindings keep our interest fresh and work with these materials too much fun.

Here’s an unusual title.  This little book (above) was issued in 1910 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in a box as part of the “Ariel booklets” series.  Many titles were published in this series but most of them were issued in bright red “leather” with gilt decoration on the cover.  As far as I know, only titles bound in suede were designed by Margaret Armstrong.  Gullans and Espey do not list this title or any other Ariel Booklet in their checklist of her binding designs.  I would conjecture that this is a gift book and was probably also issued in other formats, the suede binding putting it at a higher price than standard issues.  I don’t know if any other titles were issued in this binding but I suspect that there are a few more titles out there … somewhere. 
Margaret and her sister, Helen Maitland Armstrong, worked on a series of books by Marguerite Bouvet, but Tales of an Old Chateau (1899) was the only one in an “out of series” binding.  This copy was issued in 1901.  I like the two dark green pod-like things flanking the title though I have no idea what they represent.  Can anyone help with this?

Two titles published by Bobbs-Merrill, The Pioneer in 1905 and Huldah in 1904.

As we near the end of our floral journey, here are two more designs, one considered a masterpiece and one--not so much.  Zelda Dameron is another Bobbs-Merrill title published in 1904, and Blue-Grass and Rhododendron was published by Scribner in 1901.  Which one catches your eye?

Finally, three of my current favorites.  Two are pictorial--one of my weaknesses.   To my taste, Pipetown Sandy, in particular, would make a wonderful poster.  And yes, it was written by that John Philip Sousa (after all, in keeping with this post's theme, he was known as "The March King"). (3)
The importance of condition for these covers is repeatedly stressed by anyone who has anything to say about them.  The Irving title makes this point better than any argument with its almost pristine white cloth. When one can find a copy of any decorated binding of this period in excellent condition, as is Rip Van Winkle, the difference is that of a cloudless spring day to an overcast February afternoon when one wants to see the sky:  the latter holds out some promise, but the former is breathtaking.  The gold, green, red and yellow stamping fires a twenty-one tulip salute against the background of white coarse cloth.  Simply gorgeous!

At the top of my Margaret Armstrong list, and the last cover I'll show today, is a late design, The Quest of the Dream (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1913).  We're fortunate to have a deluxe edition in dust jacket and slipcase, on both of which the cover design is repeated.  I like to put myself in the position of a book purchaser in 1913 who would come across this title in a bookstore.  The design looks nice on the slipcase though it's simple, and with its plain line border lacks the ornamentation that so many bindings featured--kind of romantic, though the brown on tan doesn't do it any favors.  Slipcase set aside, we find a printed dust jacket with the same images in the same colors.

But then I remove the dust jacket and am just about stunned by the actual cover with its brilliant blue cloth stamped with a single white poppy blossom against what appears to be the moon.  It's impossible to tell from the image, but the gilt is in both gloss and matte--the moon being the only feature in matte. On the cover, the poppy seems to be floating slightly above the surface of the cloth, which has a very fine rib grain, particularly where it overlaps the moon.   Needless to say, I purchase the book.

Until next time when we'll show some recent acquisitions destined for our bindings collection.

(1) For an account of their journey see: Armstrong, Margaret, “Canyon and Glacier”. Overland Monthly, v. 59, no. 2, p. 95-104.

(2) Gullans, Charles and John Espey. Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Bindings. Los Angeles: Department of Special Collections, UCLA, 1991, p. 36.

(3) Image from the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (cph 3c10617