Sarah de St. Prix Wyman Whitman (1842–1904)

Sarah Whitman monogramSarah Wyman Whitman, according to Charles Gullans, was among America’s most important women designers, as well as part of that “new generation of designers of book covers” whose work appeared in the early 1890s. Whitman’s work, however, appeared earlier than most others; her first known work was from 1884. Whitman's important association with the publishing firm of Houghton, Mifflin & Co. is emphasized by the advertisements announcing her work featured in Publishers’ Weekly from 1887. During this period, Whitman is reputed to have been the only professional artist—male or female—who regularly made designs for book covers. In addition to her prolific work as a book designer, she also designed for and maintained a stained glass factory in the Boston area.

Whitman’s designs are known for their restrained style based primarily on Art Nouveau. Her designs often reflect traditional shapes and uses of the book. For example, she incorporated simulated “clasps” in many of her designs (used centuries before to clamp a book closed) in the decoration. Whitman preferred gold stamping over multi-colored inks, as well as lighter and more brightly colored bookcloths. Sarah Whitman monogramShe is best known for her ornamental rather than illustrative designs, and she used two-dimensional decorations that complimented the flat book cover. She was one of the first to carry a design around the cover from the back to the spine and front. For an example of this, please see pba00745, The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (Houghton Mifflin, 1899).

Sarah Whitman monogramFrom 1893, many of Whitman’s designs carried her monogram. For an example see pbw00157, The Queen’s Twin and Other Stories (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1899). When unsigned, Whitman’s designs can often be identified by the presence of her innovative, distinctive lettering style, a “rustic sans serif” featuring a strongly curved E, and a serif across the apex of the A, see pbw00227, Country By-Ways by Sarah Orne Jewett (Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1894). Whitman also used “high-waisted” letter forms, as can be seen in pbw00165, Strangers and Wayfarers (Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1890).

Click here to read "Reflections on a Design by Sarah Wyman Whitman," an essay by David Gehring, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Monogram: SW enclosed in a heart, often with a flame emanating from the top; SW in a stylized onion topped by a conjoined rectangle.

Click here to search the PBO database for bindings designed by Sarah Whitman.

Sources: Brander Matthews, Bookbindings Old and New (1895; reprint, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990); Sue Allen and Charles Gullans, Decorated Cloth in America (1994); Charles Gullans and John Espey, “American Trade Bindings and Their Designers, 1880–1915” (1979); Nancy Finlay, Artists of the Book in Boston, 1890–1910 (1985).

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