Saturday, August 29, 2009

An iconic book cover from 1876


The New Day
A poem in Songs and Sonnets
by Richard Watson Gilder
Illustrations engraved by Henry Marsh 1
New York: Scribner, Armstrong, and Company, 1876
17.8 x 13.5 cm
[Design often attributed to Helena DeKay Gilder] 2

Gold stamped peacock feather on blue cloth over beveled boards. It is a brilliant example of the engraver’s art—both in the quality of technique used to execute it, and the illumination that emanates from the image. The extremely fine detailing in the stamping die makes the image shimmer as the book is held, with even slight movements causing one part or another to flash more brightly, and creates illusionistic dimensionality with flat gold stamping that made me touch it to see if it’s embossed.


Enlarged detail from The New Day. This peacock feather design has luminance achieved by hand engraving the lines at different angles, and crosshatching with different textures. Stamped in fine gold leaf, it is as beautiful and satisfying to look at as a master’s brushwork on canvas.
1.    The only credit given in the book is at the end of the contents, on the last page (p. 112): “The Decorations of this volume were engraved by Mr Henry Marsh.” Letters by Richard Gilder (arranged for publication by his daughter) indicate that Marsh based his engravings on Mrs. Gilder’s drawings. I have neither seen the drawings nor located them, so can’t attest to whether the engravings attempt to reproduce them, are suggested by them, or have little in common with them.

2.    This design has been attributed to the author’s wife, Helena deKay Gilder, by Willman Spawn and others. For example, the work by Randall Silverman at the University of Utah: "Connoisseurship of Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Publishers’ Bookbindings," p. 28: “As of this writing, Helen DeKay Gilder is believed to be the first woman to design a publishers’ binding.”

The earliest commentary in my reference collection has no attribution for the design. In the 1894 pamphlet issued by The Grolier Club in conjunction with their exhibition Commercial Bookbindings, this volume follows the 1872 Fly-Leaves (see yesterday's blog entry) :
Four years later, in 1876, was published the next book among those chosen as in some sense types. This is an edition of “The New Day,” by Mr. R. W. Gilder, which has a purple cloth* cover stamped in gold with a peacock’s feather, the color showing through the gold lines with an iridescent effect quite realistic. 
The style of the feather on the cover is nearly identical to peacock feather illustrations on pages 7, 37, 81 and 105 of the book. But that does not mean that either Helena or Richard came up with the idea of using a single large feather coming diagonally from the corner. Perhaps it was thought of as a solo corner fleuron, reinvented from a Renaissance binding. It bears more than passing similarity to several corner tools I have used in hand binding leather books in period styles.

Dartmouth College has many letters from both Gilders to Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Augustus was 23 when The New Day was published, and that was during the time they (Augustus, with Helena and Richard Gilder) founded The Society of American Artists (which apparently started with meetings at the Gilders’ house in 1874 and was established June 1, 1877). I believe Whistler was also in with Gilder, and of course Peacock feathers were a big motif of his at that time (he did The Peacock Room in 1876-77).

In 1875, while The New Day was being prepared for publication, Saint-Gaudens shared a New York studio with the artist David Maitland Armstrong, whose daughter Margaret was 8 years old. Margaret Armstrong developed into one of the era's most prominent book cover artists.

Mrs. Gilder is not known to have designed any other bindings. Perhaps a skilled artisan like Marsh could have engraved the stamping die for the cover. He was known for his delicate engravings of insect life, but those were wood engravings. Whether he also engraved brass or other hard metals that could be used for a die to stamp gold is presently unknown. His Boston company was Hitchcock & Marsh.  If you have access to any information about what sort of business they were in, or if they produced stamping dies, please let me know.

The copy I photographed above is blue. I have not seen a purple copy listed. Perhaps after 100 years the chemistry of the purple dye has changed, or maybe copies of the edition were issued on blue cloth. It is also possible that this color was called purple by the writer in 1894.


  1. It really is a beautiful cover. Thank you so much for sharing these covers and the information about them.

  2. You might want to look at
    which is my site. She did most of her husband's covers and the artwork inside. I'm researching to find out if she did her brother's poetry books as well. (Charles de Kay)

    Goggle doesn't want to find my site right now, so you have to type it in at the toolbar to get there. Yahoo can find it.

    Dan McNay

  3. To the best of my knowledge, Henry Marsh did not engrave on anything but wood. Regarding “Hitchcock & Marsh”, I don’t recall ever seeing that association made before. His career pretty much revolved around the enterprises of the Ticknor family (Riverside Press and so forth-they eventually became Houghton Mifflin & Co.) until he removed to Pomfret, CT in 1879 and did work out of NY City for Scribner’s Monthly Magazine and St. Nicholas Magazine. He moved on to NYC in the Nineties, and died there November 12, 1913. He actually retired for awhile after the Thaddeus W. Harris book of 1862 made him a success. If there are any 19th century references connecting Henry to a company called “Hitchcock & Marsh” I would be very interested. I have been researching this little known man and collecting samples of his work for fifty years. He was my great great grandfather. Regards, jdm (

  4. Even as I hit enter on my previous post regarding the question of Henry Marsh and my claim that his alleged his association with the firm “Hitchcock & Marsh”, there was something in the back of my mind that caused me to question my own statement. It just sounded too darned familiar, so I went back to review my own notes and research the matter. In short, I was wrong, and I apologize for posting my doubt sans checking my facts. In any event, my records show that on pages 155 and 186 of the 1848-49 Boston City Directory, Henry Marsh is indeed identified as a partner of “Hitchcock & Marsh” with one William C. Hitchcock. Their offices, where they worked as designers and engravers on wood, were at 13 Franklin Street, Henry was then living with his father at 2 Acorn Street and Hitchcock resided at 5 Federal Court. Regards, jdm (