Artist Information

Margaret Neilson Armstrong was born in New York on September 24, 1867. Daughter to artist and painter, Maitland Armstrong, Margaret had regular access to tutoring, and perhaps more importantly, artistic endeavors. She traveled a lot as a child due to her father’s connections and the family spent a significant period of time in Italy during her youth. Her start in the field of art came in 1883 when she was 16. Margaret began to paint dinner cards and sell them to New York for sale at the Women’s Exchange. Soon after Margaret’s father received a decorated Christmas card from a friend and Margaret decided to try her hand at illustrating cards. Her sister Helen (1869) followed suit and also began working on different illustrative designs. Though neither girl had more than a year of formal artistic study, both were skilled. Though, as their youngest brother, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, notes “Margaret was the better at design, Helen at figures.”

Margaret encountered difficulty at the start of her career largely due to her status as woman. Book design and decoration was, until this point, solely a field for men. She began to submit her work under the name M. N. Armstrong in order to avoid repercussions. As a result, Armstrong’s first published title was released in Chicago (hardly the pinnacle of literary heights) and did not feature her full name. Instead, only the title page lists Armstrong as the illustrator and the book cover is only known to be her work through her brother’s documents.

1892 saw the arrival of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Both Margaret and Helen’s work was displayed at the event. Margaret displayed book covers and won an award for her cover design. In 1894 Armstrong was specifically recognized by the Grolier Club in an anonymous publication of important account of American publishers. The author writes:
Another woman designer of great versatility and eminent skill is Miss
Margaret Armstrong, who work is to be seen upon the covers of many
of the daintiest books published by the leading hours in New-York and
Chicago. Miss Armstrong has special facilities for study of the best
models in classic and later ornament, and her skill in adapting,
combining, and creating designs which are almost flawless in
excellence has made her book covers famous. (Gullans, & Espey, 1991)

Throughout the rest of the century Armstrong would prove to be a strong and worthy contender to the decorative book field. As only the second woman to enter the field successfully Armstrong served as both the lead and the inspiration for future women who joined her ranks in the early 19th century. By 1895 Armstrong had created her own alphabet which featured high cross bars, high “bowls” on rounded letters likes P, B and R and steeply slanting descenders. Most recognizable is the “swash-tailed” R which curves far below the bottom of the other letters in the alphabet. Gullans and Espey write “in 1895 her lettering become larger, bolder, and more declarative, and her ornamental detail is similar. It is no longer minute and fine, but is more broadly simplified and shows nothing tentative in filling up the space.” Her work is also recognizable for the effort to try and create distinctive styles for specific authors. Her covers were made not only to reflect the content of the literature itself, but to establish a visual image of the author of that literature. Her brother notes that her covers became “a sort of identity tag for the author.”

In speaking specifically of the 1902 Putnam edition of Sonnets from the Portuguese. Gullans and Espey write:
Sonnets from the Portuguese (1902), has some motto or quotation
imposed on banners or elaborate floral decorations en face with each
of the sonnets, and some of the floral decorations span both pages to
arch over the text, which is in small type and printed in a reddish
brown or sepia. The color weighting is perfectly successful,
although the slight tonal modeling of the decorations is a throw-back
to Victorian floral ornamentations of the page with their much more
full naturalistic representation. (Gullans, & Espey, 1968).

The advent of the book jacket in 1910 was a major blow not only to Armstrong but to the field of decorated books in general. A wife of one of the designers in the field remarked of the new dust jacket “our business was dead within a month.” As a result, Armstrong’s work as a book designer largely died out after 1913 though she kept busy writing and illustrating her own works. By the time of her death in 1944, Armstrong was responsible for over 300 individual book covers and designs. She had written many of her own books as well, including an illustrated guide to wildflowers in the west and three mystery novels. Many today regard her as the first female book designer in America.