Margaret Neilson Armstrong

A Beloved Designer

Margaret Neilson Armstrong (1867–1944) is one of America’s most loved designers of cloth bookbindings. She is known for her book covers in the Art Nouveau style but also wrote and illustrated the first comprehensive guide to wildflowers of the American West. She also wrote mystery novels and biographies.

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Margaret Armstrong began her work in the 1890’s at A.C. McClurg and then went on to other publishers, primarily Scribner’s, for whom she designed half of her total output of about 270 books. She specialized in creating many of the covers for works of a few authors including Myrtle Reed, Henry Van Dyke, Paul Bourget, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Armstrong marked her cover designs, employing an overlapping MA.

The Myrtle Reed arrangement demonstrates her use of botanical outlines. The Henry Van Dyke arrangement illustrates her sharp eye for ornamental point of interest and her stained glass procedure. Armstrong’s dad, David Maitland Armstrong, was a famed stained glass maker who worked in the 1880s with Tiffany.

Armstrong’s interest in nature is reflected in her designs which often feature animals, plants, vines and flowers. She was a revolutionary and utilized bold-colored inks, shiny and matte gold hot-stamping, embossing, and many of the cutting edge printing techniques of her time. Further, her use of slightly asymmetrical designs set hers apart from many of her peers.

Armstrong’s work reveals her lifelong interest in botany, particularly in the study of American wildflowers. She began to pursue this interest in earnest after 1910 when her cover design work began to dry up. Elaborately stamped cloth bindings were replaced by colorful paper dust jackets (which were much cheaper to produce). From 1911-1914, she and a few female friends traveled all over the western United States camping and sightseeing while she completed the detailed research that would become her Field Book of Western Wildflowers. The group was hardy and adventurous by any standard; a 1912 article MA wrote for The Overland Monthly describes their trip to the Grand Canyon. They were the first white women ever to reach the bottom of the canyon, where MA discovered several new species of wildflowers.

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