Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867-1944)
was born in New York to a wealthy family. Margaret and her
younger sister Helen both began drawing and painting in their
teens, designing holiday cards, menus and the like. By 1890,
Margaret Armstrong was designing book covers and, along with
her sister, illustrating texts. After Sarah Wyman Whitman,
Armstrong is certainly the most influential woman in book
cover design and she was extremely prolific.
Like Whitman, Armstrong usually
worked in a vocabulary of ornament, rarely producing a purely
pictorial design. She too developed her own lettering and
used cloths that were generally lighter in color than those
which were in common use. As her style developed, Armstrong's
use of several colored inks on a cover increased, her ornaments
became larger, and the covers became quite easy to see at
a distance, a crucial factor in their role as advertisements.
By the late 1890s, Armstrong
began designing several authors' works as a sort of set, using
one cloth and related designs for each cover. Her brother
Hamilton Fish Armstrong wrote of this development in his book
"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."
In addition to the twelve van
Dyke books in blue cloth, Armstrong is now most commonly known
for twelve Myrtle Reed titles she designed from 1901-13 in
a very bright lavender cloth.
Margaret, sometimes joined by
her sister, designed the text illustrations for a quite a
number of books, including Browning's Pippa Passes (see below)
and several of Paul Leicester Ford's books.
After 1907 her output of cover
designs gradually decreased until about 1913 when she worked
almost exclusively on design for her own books or those by
her father or brother.
In her mid-forties, Armstrong
spent a few years travelling around the western United States.
In 1911 she and some friends were the first women to descend
to the floor of the Grand Canyon where Armstrong discovered
some new flower species. A few years later she published Field
Book of Western Wildflowers, which included over five
hundred of her drawings.
In her later years, Armstrong also wrote two very successful
biographies, Fanny Kemble, A Passionate Victorian,
in 1938 and Trelawny, A Man's Life in 1940 as
well as three murder mysteries.
Influential in her own time,
Margaret Armstrong's exceptional book design work has been
the focus of several major exhibits and is widely collected