The Art of Katherine Milhous

By Chris B. RSS Fri, April 7, 2017

Katherine Milhous (1894-1977) wore many hats in her time: a supervisor for the Federal Art Project; an artist for the Pennsylvania Art Project (a subsidiary of the Federal Art Project, which itself was formed under the Work Projects Administration, or W. P. A.); a book designer; and an author and illustrator. As an illustrator, Milhous was awarded the 1951 Caldecott Medal by the American Library Association for her book, The Egg Tree. The book explores the Easter customs of the Pennsylvania Dutch, a culture that played a large role in Milhous’ life. 

Born in Philadelphia, Milhous identified strongly with her Pennsylvania Dutch roots and looked to their customs and artwork for inspiration. Her Pennsylvania Dutch-themed posters for the Pennsylvania Art Project led to the creation of her first book, Once Upon a Time (1938) because Alice Dalgliesh, an editor at Scribner’s, was attracted to Milhous’ use of color and line. Once Upon a Time is a collection of European and Native American folklore, but Milhous would return to her Pennsylvania and Philadelphia roots often. 

Milhous’ work can be characterized by bold colors, round forms, and the juxtaposition between the still and the animate. Patrick and the Golden Slippers (1951) exemplifies these characteristics. Patrick is a young boy in South Philadelphia whose family is involved with the Mummers Parade. Milhous’ text is highly romanticized, but her illustrations are just as strong today as when they were created. 

The illustrations in the book shift between full color and grey tones accented by bursts of canary yellow. Milhous captures the energy and excitement found at every parade; her Mummers costumes swirl and dance across the page. The majority of illustrations feature a slanted perspective that visually drives the reader’s eye forward and further into the story. The yellow bursts on her grey tone images create pops of color that visually capture Patrick’s excitement as he prepares to join the Parade for the first time.

As a Philadelphia illustrator, Katherine Milhous was well known at the Free Library of Philadelphia. The relationship between Milhous and Free Library staff was so strong that the author photo on the dustjacket to Patrick and the Golden Slippers was taken inside the Free Library. Her art, works, and personal correspondences are housed in multiple collections, notably the Children’s Literature Research Collection and the Print and Picture Collection. For more information on the Milhous collection of the Children’s Literature Research Collection, please visit our Finding Aid. You can learn more about Milhous’ life from our previous blog post, A Love of Philadelphia.

Over the next few weeks, the staff of the Special Collections Division of the Free Library of Philadelphia will be writing about items from their collection that relate in some way to Philadelphia. 

The Special Collections Division includes the Automobile Reference Collection, the Children’s Literature Research Collection, the Edwin A. Fleisher Collection of Orchestral Music, the Maps Collection, the Print and Picture Collection, the Rare Book Department, and the Theatre Collection. These collections are here to inspire you; if you’re interested in learning more, please feel free to contact us for more information. You can also visit our Digital Collections, which are home to over 40,000 digitized items from our collections.

Have a question for Free Library staff? Please submit it to our Ask a Librarian page and receive a response within two business days.

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