Alice C. Morse, Designer (1863–1961)
New Research and Discoveries
New Research and Discoveries
In 2008, my book The Proper Decoration of Book Covers: The Life and Work of Alice C. Morse was published by the Grolier Club in conjunction with an exhibition of my collection of Morse’s book covers and related materials. The book was the result of over ten years of discovery and research relating to this remarkable American designer. Since publication, new discoveries have been made thanks to the diligence of colleagues and the burgeoning of new online resources such as Jstor and Google Books. This blog page will be used to share newly acquired information about Morse and her designs. It should be used in conjunction with my book, for a current and correct picture of the designer and her work. Readers are invited to send comments regarding their thoughts and discoveries on Morse, her contemporaries and milieu.
I discovered Alice Cordelia Morse in 1997 in a storage room of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Drawings and Prints. There I stumbled across a print box containing an uncataloged collection of fifty-eight covers. As a collector and enthusiast of nineteenth-century publishers’ bindings, I was familiar with several of the covers in the box, even though I had never heard of Alice C. Morse. I was also aware of the potential importance of the book covers in light of the current interest in both American women designers and publishers’ or trade bindings from the late nineteenth century. From a handwritten note also in the print box, I learned that the book covers had been transferred from the museum’s library in 1956. Later I found in a Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1924) that Morse had given the covers to the Library in 1923. For more information on The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Alice C. Morse collection, please see my essay at the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
Until my rediscovery of Morse’s book-cover collection, details of her life were scarce, and only about twenty-five book cover designs had been attributed to her. The boon of finding fifty-eight covers inspired further research. I began to trace Morse’s life and to locate her cover designs among extant published books, in order to verify that the covers Morse gave the Museum were equivalent to them. I soon found additional covers that had not been previously attributed to Morse. To date, over eighty-seven book-cover designs by Morse have been identified as well as numerous original and published designs for stained glass, book decorations, bookplates and needlework. In a recent inventory at Cooper Hewitt Museum, 70 designs for stained glass windows for public buildings, churches and entrance halls were found, including one for the Beecher Memorial Church, (mentioned in my book but not seen at that time) and several for New York’s Carnegie Hall. In addition, 34 original designs for book covers were found. Most of these were untitled designs for books which are still unidentified as published works, with the exception of the original design for Conquest of Granada, one of Morse’s most beautiful covers.
Alice C. Morse grew up in a middle-class family during a period of emerging opportunities for women. These opportunities arose as a response to the state of women after the Civil War, which left thousands of single or widowed women impoverished, with no means of support and no training by which they could earn a living. In response to this situation, social reformers of both sexes worked to create institutions that provided educational and professional support for women, as well as opportunities to showcase and market their skills. These initiatives included the Woman’s Art School of Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, the New York Society of Decorative Art, and the Woman’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893). Morse was active in all, a talented, determined young woman who took full advantage of new opportunities opening to women to develop a career as an independent designer at a time when art and design were male-dominated endeavors.
In 1885, two years after graduating from Cooper Union, Morse took a position at Tiffany and Company as a designer and painter of stained glass. Around this time, progressive American publishers began to commission artist-designers to design the covers of commercial books, rather than assigning the work to die-makers and engravers, as was customary. Morse grew interested in the emerging field of book-cover design while still at Tiffany’s. Perhaps in part due to her experience there, she developed an impressive ability to interpret nature motifs and historical ornament. On leaving Tiffany’s in 1889, Morse resumed her education at the Woman’s Art School while also working as an independent designer. She soon rose to the forefront of the first generation of artists to design commercially produced books. Throughout the 1890s, she was mentioned in articles and exhibition catalogs along with Sarah Wyman Whitman and Margaret Armstrong, designers whose works are well known today. Morse experimented with both historic and modern styles and created appropriate designs for many subjects. The scope of the books she designed is vast, and includes literature for adults and children, drama, novels, poetry, travel, self-help and pet care. Regardless of subject, Morse designed each book cover with equal care and elegance. While I have gathered much information on Morse’s life, I am sure that more remains to be found, and there is much more work to be done in defining her style and exploring her aesthetics.
My intent is to write posts which correlate to the entries in The Proper Decoration of Book Covers. Early posts will be used to inform collectors of newly identified variants or adaptations of known designs and references for works covered in the book. In this way, posts can be used by owners of my book to annotate their copies with updated information. Once I have made updated information in my book, I will create posts about newly attributed designs for book covers, stained glass, needlework, etc. and their related references. New references can also be found in the bibliography.
My effort to create a collection of record that contains examples of all of Morse’s known designs continues. As far as I know, my collection is the only collection of this kind. It includes Morse’s books, posters and periodicals that include her designs. Eventually, I plan to find a home for the collection in an appropriate museum or academic institution. Please contact me if you are interested in knowing more about the Morse collection.
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