Sarah Wyman Whitman Bindings
Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904) pioneered the role of artist-designer in the book industry and in the process revolutionized trade bookbinding. A highly-regarded Boston artist and socialite who gathered around herself a salon comprised of many of the city and region’s best-known writers, she adopted the role of mediator between her author friends and the publisher George Mifflin, whom she knew socially. Her work echoed the Arts and Crafts Movement that viewed art and life as inseparable; she wrote that “all forms of labor are beautiful and sacred because…it all has the stamp of nobility, being essential to the world’s need.” As Betty Smith has noted, Whitman became “the first professional woman artist regularly employed by a Boston publisher to give their mass-produced book covers a sense of simple elegance through line, color, and lettering.”

Using the book as a flat, two-dimensional canvas, Whitman created cover designs that were notable for their simplicity, for the use of what we now call negative space, and for combining elements to generate a powerful balance of tension and repose. Most of her designs combine calligraphy with stylized floral shapes, many of which make subtle reference to the text, although she seldom depicted story elements directly and never worked in the poster style. She popularized the three-piece cover, frequently using white cloth for the spine and a contrasting color and texture for the covers, and she also pioneered the practice of signing her work, using a logo of a flaming heart and her initials. Her distinctive calligraphy ranges from a deliberately uneven and rustic sans serif to a formal inscriptional style. The face of modernism in her time, she was, in the words of Charles Gullans, “a forerunner who was 25 years older than the reforming generation that observed, understood, and widely imitated her example in the early 1890s.” Sarah Whitman, more than anyone else, brought the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement to life for average Americans by creating affordable works of art for the home.

In addition to her pioneering book designs, Whitman was an accomplished stained glass artist, painter, and designer of monuments. Fine examples of her stained glass can be seen at Harvard University and Trinity Church in Boston, and at several other churches and schools. She provided financial support for educational institutions for women and African-Americans, supported public housing reform, and was a founding member of the Boston Society of Arts and Crafts.

For more information please contact:
Rare Books & Manuscripts Department
McKim Building, 3rd Floor
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street
Boston, MA 02116
617-536-5400, ext. 2225
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