Short History of Vintage Graphic Design

Vintage graphic design in picture books for kids with examples


For today’s post I decided to present some vintage graphics from times when picture books were born as mass media. In the last two decades of 19th century the golden standard for illustrated books for kis were set and they are still applied today. Two of the most influential people were definitely Edmund Evans, one of pioneers of color printing, who offered cheap, yet quality picture books to masses and successfully fused art with commercial product, and Walter Crane (1845-1915), prolific artist with superb sense for details, who was a socialist by heart and sincerely believed art should be applied everywhere and accessible for everybody.

Walter Crane should be also credited as the top designer of his time. Design was the tool to join text and illustration, both already existing in illustrated books for centuries, into new media, called picture books, where everything counts – text, typography, spacings, footer, headers, the arrangement of text, full color and black and white illustrations, full page and double page picture, vignettes, even the quality of paper and binding of the books … He came from a family with a lot of artistic talent. Thomas Crane (1808-1859), his father, was successful portraitist and miniaturist, and his older brother, also named Thomas, was a painter and an illustrator too.

There is not much info about Thomas Crane Jr. available. He was born in 1843, two years before Walter. While the date of his death is unknown, we can pretty safely presume, he died before 1944, what makes his work public domain in EU. We also know, who worked with another artist in the family (a cousin of Crane’s brothers) on several projects. Her name was Elizabeth Ellen Houghton. She was born in 1853 and died in 1922. Her favorite media were watercolors and pencil. Apart from illustrations and paintings, Ellen E. Houghton, as she was often signed, was known by her work on advertising posters.

Thomas and Ellen collaborated on the work, presented in this post as well. She draw figures and Thomas took care about ornaments. Usage of decorating elements, fusion of text with graphics and overall design clearly resembles the style of Walter and here are the typical examples of this Victorian art:

example-cover-vintage-picture-bookAs we can already notice on this cover of old picture book, there are many tiny elements which are not popular in contemporary design of book covers. In 19th century book cover tried to show artistic skills of illustrators and we can clearly see many lovely designs, artistic typography used for names of both artists and there is also the name of the publisher. The main scene is caught in a circl, surrounded with flowers, birds and other small objects, used colors are easy on the eyes and act classy. This is by no means a book which screams BUY ME!, as many do today.



This endpapers with swallows is another proof  of different approach. Endpapers is technically used only to join the covers with the internal side of the book. There is no need to spend a lot of time or many for this. Well, some publishers still pay attention to it, but majority don’t really care about endpapers and use something what is already made, maybe one of pictures from the book, or simply colored paper, matching one of the dominant colors in the book. It’s hard to find somebody who is designing endpapers for modern picture books.


This is internal cover with the same motif of swallows. The title is nicely written on some kind of tag.



Another rarity – decorative initials in this lovely vintage vignette.


This is first full page illustration in the book. We’ll present all full page illustrations, which are made by Elizabeth Ellen Houghton. It is obvious her artistic expression was seriously limited by printing technique with only few colors available. Yellow and blue with basic combinations (greenish and brownish tones are very characteristic for vintage prints) and of course black.


We finally arrived to inside cover with imaginary arranged text.


Content of the book was another opportunity to show artistic skills of Thomas Crane Jr., who’s father was well-known miniaturist. Content section of a vintage book was far from being informative only.


This Houghton’s illustration was already used for the cover, this time we can enjoy in it without a cut.


Now we can see something completely different – combination of text and illustration, blended together with numerous designs by Mr. Crane. These small objects act like some kind of frame and actually distract reader from the story. This is the main reason why we can’t see this kind of design in modern picture books. But we have to admit this view offers many artistic pleasures.


The effect of the frame is even more obvious in the page above.


Now we can enjoy in different, asymmetrical design. Text and illustration are separated with lines, but both artists used lines to connect them in unique way. Ellen Houghton draw a cathedral with emphasized lines and Thomas Crane made kind of wired fence in corners, fused with the text between. The page is well balanced and pure joy for the eyes.


Another full page illustration, this time with few elements similar to ones used by Thomas Crane (text on the wall, details on the pillar and tiles on the floor). Every detail counts.

vintage graphic-design-with-vignettes

Another ‘framed’ illustration, in this case with four symmetrical vignettes.


More frames and more small details, this time in asymmetrical design.


We can’t help to notice how many geometry was included in Ellen Elizabeth Houghton’s illustrations. Circles, squares and triangles.


And more circles, squares and triangles.


Another beautiful example of collaboration of two skilled artists. The whole page is designed to show how hard was the life of washerwomen. Next series of full page illustrations will have to do without a commentary.









And for the grand finale another example of decorated page from vintage picture books:

vintage-decorations-by-thomas-craneAnd the back cover:


A lot of different styles in unique expression of one of many picture books for kids in 19th century. Nice and educating example of vintage graphic design by Thomas Crane Jr. and Ellen Elizabeth Houghton.