Alice Cordelia Morse

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A book cover designed by Alice Cordelia Morse, 1898

Alice Cordelia Morse (June 1, 1863–July 15, 1961) was a designer of book covers.

Early life[edit]

Morse was born in Hammondsville, Jefferson County, Ohio. She lived with her parents, Joseph and Ruth Perkins Morse,[1] her brother Joseph Jr., and her sister Mary in Jefferson county for the first few years of her life.[2] The family then moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn.[3]

In a biography written in 1894 by Frances E. Willard and Mary Livermore, it was mentioned that Alice attended school at a young age but her early drawings failed to reveal any special talent. Her skills did however eventually improve as an artist and she moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan to further her education.[4] She attended the Woman's School of Art at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art from 1879-1883 where she received her undergraduate degree in art and design. Cooper Union was one of the first few arts schools open to women in the 1900s. Cooper Union's primary mission was to provide every student, especially the working class, with an equal opportunity toward a fulfilling education that would create a solid foundation for future job security and financial independence. The school provided very flexible class schedules for those who had to work in order to pay for school. Although some students paid tuition, Cooper Union would often waive fees for students who were unable to pay. Morse was likely one of these students.[5]


After graduation, Morse studied at various art schools, including Alfred State College in New York, and soon began her career as a professional designer. She worked with many famous designers of the time period, including John LaFarge[6] and Louis Comfort Tiffany, both whom were well known for their arts in stained glass. She was employed by Tiffany's studio until she returned to Cooper Union in 1889.[7] Although she had learned a lot from Tiffany, she did not find great interest in Stained-glass and instead wanted to pursue other dreams of becoming a book cover designer. She decided this after she had won several book cover designing competitions. She applied and combined many of her skills in stained glass art with her skills in book cover design.[8] She was accepted onto a program at Cooper Union directed by Susan N. Carter.

During Morse's final year of graduate school in 1892, the New York Times reported her winning the "Frederick A. Lane, Robert C. Goodhue, and Trustees Silver Medal" for her full figure life drawing titled "Drawing from Life." [9] She also sold several of her book cover designs to major New York publishers of the time including Charles Scribner's Sons, Harper & Brothers, G.P. Putnam's Sons, and Dodd, Mead & Company. Carter indirectly referred to Morse's Success and talent in the 1892 copy of the Annual Report.[10]

The Woman's Building[edit]

The Woman's Building was designed by Candace Wheeler, a member of the Cooper Union Advisory Council when Morse enrolled. She was now the director of the Bureau of Applied Arts at the Women's Building. Morse took part in planning the fair at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Morse served as chairman of the Sub-Committee on Book-Covers, Wood-Engraving, and Illustration of the New York State Board of Women Managers.[11] The main goal of this project was to create exhibitions illustrating women's contributions to art, industry, sciences, social reforms, and philanthropic work in hopes of winning voting rights and better job opportunities for women. Alice also created an exhibition for the exposition that displayed eleven of her book-covers. She placed well in the exhibition receiving both a gold medal and a diploma for her designs.[12]

Morse wrote a chapter for the Woman's Building Handbook titled "Women Illustrators" which included photographs of her own book-cover designs. These books included The Chevalier of Pensieri-Vani (92-1); The Chatelaine of La Trinite (92-2); Old Ways and New (94-2); The Alhambra (92-8); Scenes from the Life of Christ (92-7); and The Conquest Granada (93-3).[13] She also created the cover for the Distaff Series which was a volume of six books written by women and published by Harper & Brothers. The series was sold in the Woman's Building.[14] Candace Wheeler wrote the introduction for this series entitled "Household Art" which described the series as being typeset, printed, and designed by women.[15]

Also in 1893, Frances E. Willard and Mary Livermore published their book A Woman of the Century: Fourteen Hundred-seventy Biographical Sketches of Leading American Women in All Walks of Life , which contains the only known photograph of Morse.[16]

Designing book covers[edit]

Throughout the 1890s (1887–1905), Morse designed approximately eighty-one book covers,[17] many of which were submitted to popular publishers throughout New York City. In the book Art and Handicraft in the Woman's Building, Alice implied that the illustrator must be able to take the central idea of the book and depict it creatively onto its cover. She believed women were best at designing. She stated in her text that "Their intuitive sense of decoration, their feeling for beauty of line and harmony of color insures a high degree of success".[18] Morse designed covers for various types of books, including novels, drama, poetry, literature, art history, travel, instructional manuals, women's health and home issues, children's stories, and pet care.[19] She also designed covers for various famous authors including Amelia Barr, Lafcadio Hearn, William Dean Howells, Thomas Nelson Page, and Oscar Wilde.[20] Because of her great talent, she was often asked to design for special holiday books and expensive publications.

During the time she served for the major publishers in New York City, they would often submit her designs to famous exhibitions of applied arts and book arts,[21] the most important one being the Commercial Book-bindings exhibition. This exhibition recognized the works of talented male and female artists and architects, includingSarah Wyman Whitman, Margaret Armstrong, Stanford White, George Wharton Edwards, and Edwin Austin Abbey. Her designs Sweet Bells Out of Tune (93-1), The Odd Number (89-4), Marse Chan (92-12), and Stevenson's Ballads (90-9) were recognized in various small review articles.[22] Stevenson's Ballads was actually featured in one of Author B.E. Hubert Jr. famous books. He also included his own brief summary of the struggle of female artists and Morse's success in the field.[23][24][25]

Morse's two head rivals of the time were Sarah Wymann Whitman and Margaret Armstrong.[26] The three were considered to be at the top of their generation of designers. Whitman's most famous covers of the time were designed for Boston's Houghton Mifflin [27] and today she is credited to be the overall best designer, male or female, for book covers.[28] Whitman was also the first to design her own hand-drawn alphabet font [29] which was often borrowed by other artists, including Morse.[30] Armstrong was the youngest [31] of the three but published over hundreds of book cover designs and thousands of illustrations.[32] She was a botanical illustrator so many of her designs were admired for their beauty because they were often filled with bright colors and floral designs.[33] She worked for many of the same publishers as Morse [34] and eventually created several of her own hand-drawn alphabets just as Whitman did. Of the three, Morse was the one who depended most on her skills as a main source of income. The other two were wealthy women. Morse, however, when creating a design took more risks and produced a greater range of variations than her other competitors.[35]

Morse did not stick strictly to designing book covers. Because her work become so popular, publishers often sought her out and paid her to create posters and in-text illustrations as well. Three known advertising posters include The Paying Guest (95P-1), Kate Carnegie (96P-1) published by Dodd, Mead, and Emma Lou, Her Book (96P-5) published by Henry Holt & Co.[36] She also received commissions for adding decorative borders, vignettes, and title pages to publications.[37]

Demand for book-cover designs soon subsided in the early 1900s with the invention of illustrated paper book jackets.[38] This saved money because it replaced the expensive decorative cloth jackets that had been used in the past by Morse.[1]


Because the need for book-cover designs diminished in the late 1890s, Alice Cordelia Morse set out for a new occupation. In 1896 she attended the Pratt Institute in New York City pursuing a 2-year degree in teaching.[1]

After she graduated from Pratt Institute in 1897, Alice moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania to accept the position of supervisor for the city's public school system. At this time Scranton was a very wealthy city and was well known for its coal resources. Morse made a better living as a teacher than she ever did as a designer.[1] For her first position, she was appointed supervisor of the art and drawing programs for local elementary schools. She worked there for two years and then accepted the position as supervisor for the art and drawing programs for high schools. She worked out of Scranton Central High School which was considered to be the best school in the area at the time. It served as a college preparatory school for both girls and boys.[39] Morse was offered her final position in 1917 as district director of all art and drawing programs in both elementary and high schools across the area. She remained in this position for the last seven years of her career until her retirement in 1924.[9]

Because it was not acceptable for women to live alone during this time period, Morse resided at the Leah M. Health boarding house while in Scranton.[40] Heath was also employed by Central High School.[9] Morse lived in the home for 12 years with Heath and two other boarders until Heath's death in 1913.[40] Morse and Heath established a great friendship because they shared many of the same interests, including art.[9] In addition, Morse took care of Heath during her last few years of life.[41] Heath left the boarding house to Morse in her will.[42] Morse eventually sold the home and moved into another Scranton address. Over the summer months, she would often take art language courses at various universities including Harvard, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Atkinson School in New York City. In addition, she would travel abroad to paint and visit art galleries in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Italy.[9]

After twenty-five years of working for Scranton public schools, Morse retired in 1924.[43] She returned to New York City and moved into a home with her widowed sister.[44] She donated 58 of her book covers to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Library where they were exhibited for a short while. They then were preserved in the library's print holdings and remained inaccessible until 1997.[9] Not much is known of her life after her return to New York City.[43] She died on July 15, 1961 at the age of 98 in the Bronx's St. Barnabus Hospital.[43]


  1. ^ a b c d Willets, 119
  2. ^ Teacher's Record Card
  3. ^ Edna Harris, "New Book Covers," Brush and Pencil, vol. 5, no. 3 (1899): 124
  4. ^ Alice Morse's Scranton Public Schools Teacher's Record Card
  5. ^ Alice C. Morse, will, May 20, 1954
  6. ^ Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (New York:1892),12.
  7. ^ Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (New York:1879), "Instructors in the Free School of Science and Art", unpaged
  8. ^ Annual Report of the Trustees of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (New York:1890), R. Swain Gifford, J. Alden Weir and Charles A. Vanderhoof were listed in "Instructors in the Cooper Union Free Schools: Woman's Art School," unpaged.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Morse's Teacher's Record Card
  10. ^ Martin Eidelberg, ... and Margaret K. Hofer, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (New York: The New-York Historical Society; and London: D. Giles Limited, 2007), 16.
  11. ^ Martin Eidelberg, ... and Margaret K. Hofer, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (New York: The New-York Historical Society; and London: D. Giles Limited, 2007), 14, 184-185.
  12. ^ Martin Eidelberg, ... and Margaret K. Hofer, A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (New York: The New-York Historical Society; and London: D. Giles Limited, 2007), 28-34.
  13. ^ Willard and Livermore, p. 523.
  14. ^ "Cooper Union Graduates Graduates," New York Times, May 30, 1891; Willard and Livermore, 523
  15. ^ Cooper Union (1891),76
  16. ^ Peck and Irish, 65-66. "The Woman's Building at the World's Columbian Exposition, 1892-93"
  17. ^ Peck and Irish, 523
  18. ^ Peck and Irish, 70
  19. ^ Peck and Irish, 27-38
  20. ^ Corticelli Home Needlework: A Manual of Art Needlework, Embroidery and Knitting, edited by Mrs. L. Barton Wilson, Mrs. Emma Haywood, Miss Alice C. Morse, Miss Elizabeth Moore Hallowell, and Mrs. Amalia Smith (Florence, Massachusetts: Nonotuck Silk Company, 1898): Design for a centerpiece or doily, The Garland Wild Rose and Forget-me-not Design No. 54, 30-31. Design for a photograph frame, Garland photograph Frame Design No. 62, Colored Plate XXV, 73-74.
  21. ^ "Bookbindings at Scribners'," The New York Times, November 12, 1894.
  22. ^ John T. Winterich, The Grolier Club, 1884-1967 (New York: The Grolier Club, 1967),7.
  23. ^ Frederick R. Brandt, Designed To Sell: Turn-of-the-Century American Posters in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts(Richmond, Virginia: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1994),75.
  24. ^ R.R. Bowker, ed., American Catalogue 1890-1895, (New York: Peter Smith, 1941),472.
  25. ^ Charles Gullans and John Espey (1979),53-54; Publisher's Weekly (December 20, 1890):990
  26. ^ Aldine Club, Catalogue of an Exhibition of Oil and Water-Color Paintings Loaned by New-York Artists, Also of Modern Cloth and Leather Book-Covers and Original Designs Therefor, at The Aldine Club, from the Twenty-fifth to the Thirty-first of March, Inclusive, (New York: The Aldine Club, 1892); (anonymous author), Commercial Book-bindings: An Historical Sketch, with Some Mention of an Exhibition of Drawings, Covers, and Books, at the Grolier Club, April 5 to April 28, 1894 (New York, The Grolier Club, 1894); Architectural League of New York, Catalogue of the Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York (New York: Architectural League of New York, 1889-1890, 1893-1895)
  27. ^ Architectural League of New York (1899), "Introductory," unpaged.
  28. ^ Grolier Club (1894), 114-15
  29. ^ The House and Home: A Practical Book (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894), vol.1, p.9
  30. ^ The House and Home: A Practical Book (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894), vol.1, p.7
  31. ^ The House and Home: A Practical Book (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894), vol.1, p.7, Anne Reeve Aldrich, Songs About Life, Love and Death (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892), p.9
  32. ^ The House and Home: A Practical Book (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1894), vol.1, p.7, Anne Reeve Aldrich, Songs About Life, Love and Death (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892), p.6-7
  33. ^ Elliot, 75.
  34. ^ Charles Cullans and John Espey, Margaret Armstrong and American Trade Binding (Los Angeles, California: University of California, Los Angeles, Research Libraries, Occasional Papers 6 (1991),2.
  35. ^ Elliot, 75
  36. ^ Gullans and Espey (1991), 132
  37. ^ Gullans and Espey (1991),14
  38. ^ Gullans and Espey (1991),69-107
  39. ^ Gullans and Epsey (1979),95 (note 25)
  40. ^ a b Alice C. Morse, probate proceeding, will of Alice C. Morse, dated September 26, 1961, File No. P1394, Surrogate's Court, Bronx County, New York.
  41. ^ Scranton Republican, June 13, 1912
  42. ^ "Report to the Library of Trustees..1923"
  43. ^ a b c Alice C. Morse will dated May 20, 1954
  44. ^ The Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 19 (1923), p. 23

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