The Golden Age of Book Cover Art

The Golden Age of Book Cover Art

Determined to Succeed, Split Fountain coverThe golden age of book cover art with its beautifully designed, foil stamped and coloured covers started as early as the mid 1800s. This creative period reached its peak in the last third of the nineteenth century and carried on until just after World War 1.

During this time a range of artists and illustrators became masters of foil blocked book cover art and the printing techniques of that era. Britain, America, and Europe, were all involved in the technique. The artists shared and inspired each other, and it can be seen in the designs that many were greatly influenced by the British Arts and Crafts Movement, The Aesthetic Movement, Art Nouveau and the oriental art which was much in vogue in the late nineteenth century.

A display in a bookshop in the 1800s, with all the covers presented for sale, must have been a delightful site.

In the USA companies such as The Decorative Designers (1895 – 1932) brought together highly skilled illustrators and printers. In the early days covers might be just gold foil or maybe one or two colours but as the artists and printers developed their skills, the printing techniques evolved to blend colours from one printing plate. The Decorative Designers company developed a technique called ‘The Split Fountain’ which enabled the printing of two colours or more on one engraved metal plate. This technique is still in use today.

Rhymes and Roundelays, foil blocked book coverThe list of artists who produced these books is extensive. Famous artists such as Maxfield Parrish and Rockwell Kent were involved but many other less well known artists such as Margaret Armstrong, Frank Hazenplug, Blanch McManus, Thomas Watson Ball and Marion L Peabody are now noted for their beautiful book covers.

This golden age of book cover design ended when the depressed economies that followed World War 1 started to bite. The costs of plates and dies for this distinct type of printing became too costly. Dust jackets were cheaper to produce and took over to visually sell a book. Thus ended this golden age with its beautiful die stamped book covers.

Those beautiful book covers

Shown below are book covers from this period. These books are much sought after by collectors.

Rhymes and Roundelays, close up of foil blocked book cover

The above close-up shows foil blocking in gold plus black and green on a maroon cloth. Published in 1875.

Determined to Succeed, Split Fountain cover, close up

This close-up shows the ‘Split Fountain’ printing technique where colours are blended. Published in 1893.

Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Lonfellow

This book cover is printed in gold, cream and purple on a green cloth. Published in 1907.


A page spread from The-Art-of-American-Book-Covers

This page spread is from Richard Minsky’s excellent book ‘The Art of American Book Covers’.


An example of foil block printing today

Foil block printing is still very much in use today. The technology has advanced and is now computer controlled. In the nineteenth century. The foil blocks would be applied in a much slower way. These blocks would need to be engraved, lined up to print both the book cover and the spine, heated and printed. Each colour needed a new block. To add the Split Fountain effect where multiple colours were applied would have required even more skill. This link shows a modern foil printing machine in use.

For this article we are indebted to Richard Minsky for his book ‘The Art of American Book Covers’. Seek out this book to see a wonderful range of book covers and read his excellent detailed history of the golden age of book cover design.

Visit Richard Minsky’s blog.



Article by Christopher Sharville © 2017. If you spot any errors we are always willing to learn. Please use our contact form.