77 Mount Vernon Street Boston,
Sarah Wyman Whitman was born in Massachusetts and largely educated by a tutor in her family’s Lowell home. At twenty-four, she married the wealthy wool merchant Henry Whitman and moved to Boston, living briefly in Cambridge before moving to Beacon Hill, the cultural center of Boston’s educated elite. Very shortly after, she began to study with the painter William Morris Hunt, who had only just begun to accept female pupils. Whitman showed promise, and after a brief education—including with the artist William Rimmer and the Parisian painter Thomas Couture (who would later teach Manet)—she began to exhibit her work in New England.
Whitman turned briefly to carpet design before receiving a commission for the stained glass windows of the Central Congressional Church in Worcester. Her work there, which includes biblical imagery, floral patterns, figures, and text, launched her career as a glazier. Whitman opened a studio on Boylston, the Lily Glass Works.
Already with two successful artistic trades, Whitman turned to the design of book covers, and was the first woman employed by Houghton Mifflin to do so. Her work was innovative in its simplicity, often featuring a repeating pattern, floral motifs, gold foil, and Art Nouveau embellishments. It was her stated objective to bring beauty to an object that was cheaply produced and “sold at a low price.” Her covers are often identifiable by her signature—a flaming heart enclosing her initials, “SW”—and by a distinctive font she designed and employed in many pieces, a sans serif with a curved capital “E” and “high-waisted” letters. Whitman’s work appeared on the covers of books by authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and her personal friend Sarah Orne Jewett.
Whitman was a patron of the arts and later in life sat on the board of the Harvard “Annex,” which would become Radcliffe College. Upon her death, she left large sums to the school and to the Museum of Fine Arts. Her house at 77 Mount Vernon Street has since been home to The Club of Odd Volumes, a dinner club for bibliophiles with an extensive private library.