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katherine milhous


Katherine Milhous.png
Katherine Milhous Graduation 1918

Katherine Milhous was a person whose appreciation and celebration of Pennsylvania, the city of  Philadelphia, and the surrounding communities, found its way into most of the work she created over the course of her long career.


Katherine was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1894 but moved soon after with her family to New Jersey, where she spent the remainder of her childhood. With respect to her background, she was once quoted as saying, “My background is Quaker and Irish, Methodist and Catholic, with a dash of Pennsylvania Dutch from the Palatinate.”(Viguers) Her father was a printer, who ran his own print shop, and her mother was a talented seamstress. And despite these facts, she herself admitted that her formative years lacked significant cultural stimulation from where she lived in New Jersey. While summers were bustling, the town was not much more than a seasonal destination of sorts rather than a year-round residence for many people. Thus, the winters there lacked people and stimulation. (Templin) The small town did not have a library. However, Katherine’s parents were able to buy some books for the family to enjoy, books that Katherine read time and again. Her interest in printing from watching her father at work and her love of drawing, which started very young, meant that she wanted to become an artist. (Templin)


With her family’s support, she could attend art school in Philadelphia. A city she loved and had wanted to return to for the stimulation and culture it provided. “I never saw a good painting or piece of sculpture or heard fine music. Returning to Philadelphia to go to art school, I made up for lost time.”(Milhous Viguers) There she attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art. The city, while less than 20 miles from the town where she lived with her family, was still a considerable distance. During her first years attending art college in Philadelphia, she lived at home and commuted to the city. There she attended school during the day and worked for newspapers producing illustrations in the evenings. (authors are people attending festivals, Frances Lichten). She was studying illustration, even winning an award for her illustrations during her time at school. Katherine received a certificate in Industrial Drawing in 1915 and a degree in Illustration from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art in 1918. (Museum Annual reports) 


Following that, out of her desire to live and work as an artist and to be able to provide for herself, she began attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There she studied sculpture. It was also there that she was awarded a scholarship, which enabled her to visit Italy and France to further her artistic and sculptural education. She studied the sculptural works of the masters. (authors are people) It was after this, upon her return home, that she began working with the WPA and the FAP.  


During Milhous’s time working for the WPA and the FAP, she headed the Pennsylvania Poster Division, which was located in Philadelphia. However, as a trained artist, she was not simply an administrator; she actively created numerous posters herself. Many of her WPA posters featured the cultural and folk traditions of Pennsylvania, including those of the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. It should be noted that the term Dutch (i.e., Pennsylvania Dutch, also known as Pennsylvania Germans) historically referred to those individuals who spoke German rather than individuals from the Netherlands. The word Dutch was the English translation of the word Deitsch. There are also numerous religious affiliations; those most relevant to Katherine’s work include the Amish, Mennonite, Moravian, and Ephrata Society, Cloisters communities.(Durnbaugh) She became interested in the Pennsylvania Dutch during her time in art school. “It was on camping trips through Pennsylvania in an old Dearborn wagon drawn by a plow horse that I learned to know the folk art of my own people.”(viguers, milhous) Her posters highlighted the diversity of the state and featured motifs found in the folk art of Pennsylvania, German design, and the bold patterns and colors that the Pennsylvania Dutch were known for.


During this time, Katherine also worked with Frances Lichten, whom Milhous had met in art school. (Lichten & Museum Annual Reports) Lichten was the Pennsylvania State Supervisor for the American Index of Design, a very important FAP project. Milhous designed and created the poster for the Index’s exhibition. 


Lichten was someone who would become a lifelong friend and creative collaborator. Lichten, also a native Pennsylvanian and an artist herself, was a well-respected authority and wrote about the folk arts of the region. Lichten, also worked as an archivist at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and for the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a Research Associate in the Decorative Arts department. (NYT, Miller) The museum holds numerous prints by Lichten in their collection. There is also a special research collection dedicated to her research and work.(Miller) Katherine and Frances shared many interests. They traveled extensively; they shared a studio for more than three decades and their lives for more than forty years. Lichten would write the biographical paper for Milhous when she was awarded the Caldecott Medal for a book she wrote and illustrated. Katherine and Frances had attended the same art school. Together they traveled to Europe--something for which Katherine had been awarded a scholarship--to study art and sculpture between the two World Wars.(Lichten) 


Milhous’s career was more focused than those of colleagues like Dorothy Waugh. However, she injected as much passion for her work and her subjects as anyone. She is more well-known outside design circles than some of her fellow WPA poster designers, thanks largely to her successful career as a book designer, writer, and illustrator that followed her time with the WPA. Milhous’s work, not only during her time with the WPA but most of what followed during her long career, was made for children and to share stories and histories as a means by which to explore, preserve, and educate. Her books often drew on her own life and the communities that interested and inspired her. (Viguers) 


Following her time with the FAP, Katherine was approached by an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, Alice Dalgliesh. (Hopkins) The editor had seen Katherine’s WPA work highlighting the designs of the Pennsylvania Dutch community and felt that her illustrative style would be very well-suited to children’s books. That seemed to have sealed Katherine’s fate as the rest of her career was almost entirely dedicated to the art of books. Katherine began working for the publisher, illustrating and designing her own books as well as those of others. (Viguers) Maybe she was destined to work in print. She herself noted, “The sound of a printing press has been following me all my life. My first studio was in my father’s printing shop. I would sit dangerously near the presses and draw on scrap paper.” (Hopkins)She designed, illustrated, and wrote many books over the course of her successful career.


Her career as a children’s book illustrator began with the publication of Once on A Time in 1938. It wasn’t until several years later, in 1940, that Lovina, the first book she wrote and illustrated, was published. 


Katherine worked on more than two dozen books over the course of her career, designing, researching, writing, and illustrating many of them. She also lent her considerable talents as an illustrator and designer to books written by others. Many of these grew out of her professional relationship with Alice Dalgliesh, who was not simply an editor at Scribner’s, but an author in her own right. Dalgliesh and Milhous collaborated on numerous titles, including The Silver Pencil, Wings Around South America, and A Book for Jennifer. Milhous and Dalgliesh maintained their friendship and a fruitful working relationship over the course of Milhous’s long and productive career. Milhous was awarded the Caldecott Medal in 1951 for her book, The Egg Tree, which had been published in the previous year. A book she both wrote and illustrated that again highlighted the designs and Easter traditions of the Pennsylvania Dutch community. The Caldecott Medal is awarded to one book annually and "recognizes the most distinguished American picture book for children." It is awarded to the illustrator by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. (ALA)   


She remained in Philadelphia for the rest of her life and had many ties to the city and surrounding communities. This deep affection and appreciation for the region were represented in several of the books that she worked on during her life. At one point, writing, “Now my studio is in old Pine Street, a leafy part of town. Here I mean to make more books — books rooted in the soil of my state or born during long walks about the early city.” (Viguers)


One book highlighting her love of Philadelphia was, Through These Arches: The Story of Independence Hall, a project she worked on for 15 years. The book was her love letter to the city and history of Philadelphia, researched, drawn, and written with care. Although this book was written for adults rather than for children, she herself felt it was one of her most important books. (Commire) She cared about history and about sharing those histories in order to maintain them. She was active in many Philadelphia institutions aimed at preservation, including the Society of Architectural Historians and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, among others.(commire) 


Perhaps because of her exposure from a young age to the printing industry through her father, her role as an author and illustrator, her desire to share knowledge and art, or some combination thereof, Katherine had a long relationship with the Free Library of Philadelphia. As well as various other branches in smaller surrounding towns, including Bethlehem. She was even commissioned to create a mural in one of the library’s branches. 


Katherine was generous with her time, her devotions, and her art. She was a member of various local and national organizations including the Author League of America, American Institute of Graphic Arts, and the Bookseller’s Association of Philadelphia, among others. (Commire) On top of her participation in these and the Philadelphia historical societies, she also donated to various causes around Philadelphia, including the Philadelphia College of Art. (College annual reports)


She was dedicated to the library, as noted above, and donated a large selection of her WPA posters, preparatory sketches, illustrations for several of her books, and other samples of her work to the Philadelphia Free Public Library during her life. (Phil Library) Additionally, a significant amount of Milhous’s work can be found in the Kerlan Collection. Founded in the 1940s, the Kerlan Collection is a special research collection dedicated to children’s literature housed at the University of Minnesota. According to the special collection, some of the Milhous materials were given directly to Dr. Irvin Kerlan. (Dr. Kerlan was an alum of the University of Minnesota who collected examples of rare and exemplary children’s literature, founded the collection at the University, and for whom it is named.) Dr. Kerlan later donated his collection of Milhous items to the University of Minnesota. In later decades (specifically the 1960s and 1970s), Milhous continued a relationship with the Kerlan Collection, donating production materials for additional titles she had worked on. The collection has material from twenty of the books she worked on and various other materials. During her life, Katherine continued to enjoy working and making things with her hand, as she had as a child. In addition to her work as an author and illustrator, Milhous worked on numerous murals in the Philadelphia region and nurtured her love for sculpture in her personal creative work. (Kerlan Collection)


In terms of her personal life, Katherine never married. However, she shared her life with Frances Lichten for over 40 years. (Shahadah) She seemed to surround herself with individuals who appreciated and loved many of the things she was passionate about. The other friendship that seemed to have been the longest and most fruitful was between herself and her editor Alice Dalgliesh. Her loves and interests naturally found their way into her creative work and life, where one seemed to endlessly inspire the other and vice versa. Katherine died in 1977. Seeing how a person's life can be built entirely around those things one holds more dear is beautiful. Katherine Milhous seems to have achieved this. 

her work

The best place to begin is with Katherine's time with the WPA. Katherine was located, as the work to the right would indicate, in the Pennsylvania Poster Division. She created numerous posters during her time there, many of which highlighted the diverse cultural landscape of the state. 

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