The years 1860-1920 witnessed sweeping changes in book design, inspired by technological developments, marketing strategies, and shifting ideas about art. Commercial publishers used these advances to mass-produce books that emulated the aesthetics of private presses, with attractive layouts and decorative bindings, and marketed them to the growing literate public on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2009, Mary G. Sawyer gifted more than 3,000 books that represent this unique moment in the history of the book to the Delaware Art Museum’s Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives. This incredible collection, coupled with the Museum’s strong holdings in books and renowned Pre-Raphaelite collection, inspired the summer 2017 exhibition “The Cover Sells the Book”: Transformations in Commercial Book Publishing, 1860-1920, on view June 3 – August 27.

The exhibition features over 50 books that illustrate the ways in which the aesthetics and ideals of private presses, such as William Morris’s Kelmscott Press, were translated by commercial publishers. Although many of these styles did not ultimately become the dominant method of book design, their influence on publishers and readers alike was profound.

In addition to books, the exhibition will include book prospectuses, advertising posters, and original illustrations, including Frank Schoonover’s Kidnapped. Books on view also include The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Earthly Paradise by William Morris, The Prince’s Progress by Christina Rossetti and designed by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and The Romance of Zion Chapel by Richard Le Gallienne and designed by Will H. Bradley.

Turn-of-the-century audiences were exposed to an array of book styles, influenced by Aestheticism, Art Nouveau, Pre-Raphaelitism, and Arts and Crafts movements. These styles were circulated through posters and advertisements produced to match and market the books. By integrating cover, content, and design, publishers sold books that were works of art for a relatively affordable price. At the time, an expanding middle class and significant growth in literacy created a ready consumer market.

“People wanted beautiful books in their homes, both for viewing pleasure and as a clear status symbol. The new interest in books as works of art attracted an expanded group of consumers, a burgeoning middle class with more disposable income,” says Rachael DiEleuterio, Librarian and Archivist at the Delaware Art Museum.

To view large images and caption information, click below.

The Museum’s Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives houses over 39,000 volumes and 2,000 linear feet of archives. This non-circulating research collection includes monographs, exhibition catalogs, periodicals, reference works, and extensive vertical files relating to individual artists. It also holds the personal papers of artists and collectors, including John Sloan, Howard Pyle, Frank Schoonover, and Samuel Bancroft, Jr. The scope of the Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives and related special exhibitions reflect the Delaware Art Museum’s permanent collection.

Sponsors and Organizers

“The Cover Sells the Book”: Transformations in Commercial Book Publishing, 1860-1920 was organized by the Delaware Art Museum. Additional support was provided, in part, by a grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts, a state agency, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. The Division promotes Delaware arts events on


Founded in 1912, the Delaware Art Museum is best known for its large collection of works by Wilmington native Howard Pyle and fellow American illustrators, a major collection of British Pre-Raphaelite art, urban landscapes by John Sloan and his circle, and a survey of American art from early 19th century through the present. Visitors can also enjoy the outdoor Copeland Sculpture Garden and a number of special exhibitions throughout the year.

The Delaware Art Museum is at 2301 Kentmere Parkway, Wilmington, DE 19806. Open Wednesday: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., Thursday: 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m., and Friday – Sunday: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Monday and Tuesday: Closed. Admission fees are charged as follows: Adults (19–59) $12, Seniors (60+) $10, Students (with valid ID) $6, Youth (7–18) $6, and Children (6 and under) free. Admission fees are waived Thursdays 4:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. and Sundays 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. thanks to support from generous individuals. For more information, call 302-571-9590 or 866-232-3714 (toll free), or visit

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