Forgotten Women Designers and Illustrators

We can all agree that graphic design and illustration was a male dominated profession at the outset. Or can we? Volume 1 of  Advertising Arts & Crafts, Eastern Edition (Lee & Kirby, New York, 1926), a 446 page index of hundreds of designers and illustrators from Chicago, Boston and New York, listed close to 30 percent women. On the “General Listings” “W” page alone there is Clara Elsene Williams, Lorena Wilson, Regina A. Wineburgh, Mrs. Earle B. Winslow, Alice Beach Winter, Aage M. Wise, and Elizabeth Tyler Wolcott. And that’s only one page of “W”s. There’s also Evelyn Wilber, Anita Wilcox, and Florence R.A. Wilde on another.

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A healthy number of women were letterers, poster designers, fashion illustrators, editorial illustrators, layout artists, retouchers, and some did “Allegorical, Figure, Heads, Historical Subjects, Portrait, Black and White, Charcoal, Color, Crayon, Oil and Scratch board.” Some were anonymous but many signed their work.

So, where are these women in the history books … or in the cannon itself? Women began to make their names known in the late 1950s but only in the 1980s do they break the gender barrier. Still, who is to say that these women who advertised their talents in AA&C are not deserving of a place in Meggs’, Hollis’ or all the other recent history texts?

The excuse has long been that women did not promote themselves or get promoted. They did their work, went home at night and took care of the family. Well, these promotional ads (below) by only a few of the women represented in AA&C just may have been originators not followers. They may also be the lost women of graphic design history.

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For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility‚ one of the many Heller titles available at

6 thoughts on “Forgotten Women Designers and Illustrators

  1. Scott B.

    It’s wonderful to see the work of these talented women done in a time period when women were relegated to being second class citizens. Their abilities were absolutely first rate. We would all benefit from seeing more of it.

  2. David Gartler

    One of the leading American poster designers of the 1890’s was Ethel Reed. Countless questions have arisen as to what happened after her brief & brilliant career. Some say she became blind, murdered or married into oblivion. Some research is needed.

  3. Jennifer

    What beautiful work! My mother was a commercial illustrator in the 50s and 60s, later an advertising executive. Her 3 children amused themselves at her feet with paper and crayons as she expertly rendered bridal gowns, curtains and decorative towels for newspaper ads. Her skills were with pen & ink and wash, giving inanimate objects a particular panache that isn’t possible with photography. Sadly, I don’t think any of her commercial work exists. Many more women followed in her footsteps in the 70s, but by the 80s it was becoming a lost art.

  4. Howie

    I recently went to see the Alex Ross show at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA which was a great show, but the real surprise was seeing the work by Ross’ mother Lynette who’s influence on her son is obvious. Lynette Ross’ work is stunning and, according to the show description, she gave up her career to have kids and be a mom. If only she had continued working… oh well. Just one of many similar stories I am sure.