Child pages
  • East, West, and the Individual- Intersections in the Book Bindings of Sarah Wyman Whitman

Drew University Library

Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

An exhibit curated by Catherine Magee, CLA 2010 

Summer 2009 Independent Study Project 

Prof. Kim Rhodes, Advisor 

Drew University Library 

September-November 2009  

Pictures from the Exhibit 

Case Listings from the Exhibit 


After the invention of the printing press, the place of the book in society changed. No more was the book considered an objet d’art, as the finely made, hand-crafted illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages had been. Books became just another commodity to be peddled to the public. The minuscule type was set to fill as much of the page as possible, leaving little room for decoration of the word. Publishers insisted that designers depict the entire contents of the book on the cover, regardless of the aesthetics or legibility. As profits and speedy production began to drive the design of books, the book had become unfriendly to the reader.  

At the end of the 19th century, book aesthetics had taken a backseat in a world that was constantly in flux. The Industrial Revolution had widened the gap between the rich and the poor, who were doomed to a miserable life in factories. A new art movement arose, believing that everyone’s life could be improved by better quality material goods. From the other end of the world, Asian goods and ideas were flushed into the West and became integrated into American culture. Amidst all this chaos, the first professional book designer created small but beautiful junctions between these facets of history. Her work is relevant not only to a unique period of American art history, but to the Drew Community, as several of her finest bindings are found in the Drew Library’s collection. This exhibit outlines the multi-layered intersection of Japanese art and design, the philosophies of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Sarah Wyman Whitman as both artist and craftswoman, and the individual: both the Victorian-era consumer and the modern-day Drew Library reader.  

The Arts and Crafts Movement 

The rise of the Arts and Crafts Movement indirectly prompted a change in this attitude. Originating in Britain in the 1850’s, the Movement sought to revive the joys of working with one’s hands, and the pleasures found in the products of an honest day’s work; a simplified life, furnished by uncomplicated and functional design inspired by organic asymmetry and roughness. The movement came also to denounce the gilded, over-decorated Victorian era furnishings. On a moral note, the reunification of art and labor would reverse the effect of the Industrial Revolution and elevate lowly and deprived factory workers to the status of honored craftsmen. These ideas crossed the Atlantic through the exchange of both art and artists, and found a center of operations in Boston. The movement ultimately became the aesthetic counterpart to progressive political parties. 

Sarah Wyman Whitman 

Whitman was the first professional artist to take up book design as an integral part of their work, becoming the principal designer of book covers for Boston-based Houghton Mifflin and Company. A leader in the Boston Arts and Crafts Society, Whitman refused to allow the pressures of the industry to dictate her method of work. Rather, she maintained her belief that the ultimate concern of the designer should be the consumer. As she said during a lecture in 1894, “And so I say the best art had regard in book covers to the reader. It is the reader, the person who owns it, who cares for it, who is going to have a certain feeling about the book, to whom the book cover will have significance.”  

Whitman’s designs remained simple. She herself claimed to be a traditionalist when it came to book design, and often used elements of book structure from before mass production. Avoiding figural art, she used vegetal forms in varying degrees of abstraction. She stayed away from attempting to depict the whole contents of the text on the cover as publishers frequently requested. Her hand-drawn typeface became the trademark of her work; the uniqueness of each letter gave the type a more human touch.  

However, she retained the work process known to post-printing press book designers for decades. After designing the cover on paper, the drawing was sent off to a professional dye-maker who carved the design in bronze for the printer. Whitman then selected the fabric and ink colors from her studio, and her choices were again referred to the printing factory. Whitman had very little to do with the actual construction of the book. Though some members of the Arts and Crafts Movement deplored this old hierarchy of designer over worker, many including James McNeill Whistler (better known for his paintings than his books) had no qualms about maintaining that chain of command.   


A great boon to Whitman’s style and philosophy was Orientalism. The term refers to a period lasting from the 17th-20th centuries, during which Asian countries and the Western countries, namely Britain, who occupied them exchanged ideas on theater, design, art and architecture. The most visible results of the movement in Europe and America was the manufactured production of ceramics, textiles, furniture, wallpapers, and other goods in imitation of the decorative styles of Japan, China, and India.  

By the 19th century, Western art was caught up with the Arts and Crafts movement, undergoing a series of reforms in attitudes toward reasserting the value of the craftsman and elevating his work to that of the fine artist. Asian arts and crafts were constantly placed even further into the shadows by European imperialism as either primitive to or dependent on innovations of the European tradition of art, attitudes founded largely on theories of racial inferiority. The theories at the root of the Arts and Crafts movement aided considerably to combat the racial hierarchy that suppressed the worth of Asian arts. Though the Arts and Crafts movement did not initiate the sudden rise in demand for Orientalist objects, the positive press associated with the style likely increased its popularity. The art of Japan, a nation that had been closed to the West until 1854, held a particular fascination. 

The craze for Japonisme began in the 1860s. Artists in Europe began to adopt the essential elements of Japanese art: the “asymmetry, spatial organization, abstraction, and intimate subject matter.” However, Whitman was cautious to incorporate elements of Asian art into her work. She felt that over-use, in addition to being poorly combined with Western art, was corrupting the pureness and simplicity of traditional Japanese art, and even ruining Western appropriations. As Whitman said in a speech from 1894 on the book arts, “Ten years ago you would have found book covers, hundreds of them, which represented a combination of bad French art mixed with Japanese art; scrolls and arabesques, which had to do with some debased form of book cover mixed with a bit of Japanese fan, the suggestion of a sun, a stork, or strange diagonal lines, so beautiful in pure Japanese art but so fatal and terrible on a book.”

  • No labels