Poems of Cabin and Field

Poems of Cabin and Field

Poems of Cabin and Field by Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1899)
Alice Cordelia Morse (1863 – 1961), binding designer
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives, Delaware Art Museum

Intending the volumes for the lucrative Christmas gift book market, Dunbar’s publishers strongly focused on the decorative aspects of the books. For their first collaboration with the Hampton Institute Camera Club, Dodd, Mead & Co. hired Alice Cordelia Morse (1863 – 1961) to design the book’s cover and interior decorations. A leading New York book designer in the late nineteenth century, Morse studied at the Woman’s Art School of the Cooper Union, before working for Louis Comfort Tiffany as a painter and designer of stained glass. In 1887 she began to concentrate on book-covers, and by 1905 she had created no fewer than eighty-three covers for many of New York City’s preeminent publishers, including Scribner’s, Putnam’s, and Dodd, Mead & Co.

Unlike her primary competitors – Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842 – 1904) and Margaret Armstrong (1867 – 1944) – whose work often reflected their own trademark styles, Morse worked in a variety of styles. Adapting her designs to complement the text, she chose imagery ranging from Classical, to Celtic, Arabic, Gothic, Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts. For Poems of Cabin and Field, Morse created a symmetrical Arts and Crafts-inspired cover design that evoked the landscape around Hampton Institute, with Southern trumpet vine flowers. Interior decorations were also drawn from local flora and fauna, including cotton and tobacco plants, peanuts, and corn, and even racoons and rabbits.

Poems of Cabin and Field

Photograph, not dated, from “Chris’mus is a-Comin’,” in Poems of Cabin and Field by Paul Laurence Dunbar (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1899)
Hampton Institute Camera Club (est. 1893)
M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings, Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives, Delaware Art Museum

In the beginning, the photographers’ technical skills were somewhat rudimentary. Many of the images were simple visual translations of images from Dunbar’s poems, and the photographs have a contrived – or staged – look about them. In this photograph, however, the decision to include the edges of the studio backdrop seems to undermine or repudiate the plantation tradition convention that the image of the young man playing the banjo otherwise invokes.

The poem “Chris’mus is a-Comin’,” was added to the first volume by request of the Camera Club. Though Dunbar was the author of the poetry that appears in these volumes, the Camera Club photographers contributed substantially to the shaping of the books’ content. On several occasions the Camera Club made editorial suggestions regarding the choice of texts, indicating to the publishers which poems they believed did not easily lend themselves to visualization.

Poems of Cabin and Field