Book Collecting Guide

A Brief History of Miniature Books

Sometimes, size is the only thing that matters.

In 1983, the Miniature Book Society was founded to standardize the size of miniature books in the United States. Until then, any volume smaller than the norm was considered miniature. Even John Carter, in The ABC of Book-Collecting, defines them as any volume whose “principal (usually only) interest lies in their very small size”.

The MBS deemed miniature books to be no more than 3 inches in length or width, and in the US and much of Europe, those measurements have remained ironclad. Since then miniatures have been further classified by size into 3 other sizes. A macro miniature is slightly larger (3 to 4 inches), while a micro miniature comes in between 1/4 to 1 inch. Finally, there’s the ultra micro miniature—very small indeed, at less than 0.25 inches.

Minium, from which miniature derives, was a reddish lead used to pigment little hand-painted pictures in illuminated manuscripts. Between then and the days of mass-produced trinkets, miniatures have experienced a rarified history. One of the first miniatures, Diurnal Mogantium, measuring just 3 x 4 inches, was set and bound by an assistant of Gutenberg, Peter Schoffer, in 1468. Predating that, miniature tablets in cuneiform have been traced to 2500s BCE Sumeria.

Around 200 miniature books are extant from the 16th century, including 46 bibles and 2 editions each of Ovid and Dante among them. William Pickering, in 1819, was the first to introduce miniatures in any sort of large-scale way. His Diamond Classics series featured a potpourri of well-known works, from Virgil to The Compleat Angler, all uniformly bound and designed to fit in the pocket. Rival publishers soon capitalized on his lead, producing more miniatures than ever. Some came with their own bookshelves or revolving racks for the owner to show them off to visitors, and Napoleon is said never to have gone conquering without his handy miniature library in tow.

By the mid-1800s, miniatures were trending. An explosion of mini instructional manuals, songsters, hymnals, whimsical works for children and satires became readily available. Tourist guides, like Tom Thumb’s Play-Book: London in Miniature, were the equivalents of early travel advertisements; some folded out to reveal important landmarks. The English Bijou Almanac, from 1837, was a compilation of portraits of the famous, a calendar of events, poetry and even sheet music. Topical or behavioral references were especially popular: Routledge’s Etiquette for Ladies (1864), measuring about 0.4 inches, came in an adorable Victorian binding. Others were bound in fine cloth or morocco, containing minuscule woodcuts or engravings.

Some miniatures were made specifically for concealment. The Fruit of Philosophy; or, The Private Companion of Young Married People (1832), is a how-to guide on contraception. For a subtler wooing, there’s 1871’s The Little Flirt, which tells the budding gentleman or lady how to use handkerchiefs as romantic gestures.

High-quality editions, such as the exquisite 1896 leather-bound Galileo a Madama Cristina de Lorena, published by the Salmin Brothers in Padua. In “fly’s eye” 2.5 type, it allegedly took an entire month to print its 30 pages, and is considered the smallest book to be set by hand.

An astounding display of miniatures was the tiny collection commissioned by Queen Mary for her dollhouse, itself built by the noted architect Edwin Luytens, between 1921-1924. W. Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling were just two authors who dashed off stories; every volume was then bound and bejeweled by Sangorski & Sutcliffe, one of the finest binders in the world.

But miniatures continued to be widely available, appearing as pop-up books for kids, a Cheshire Cat flip-book and cheaply bound miniatures featuring Sherlock Holmes, the Art of War and selections from Mark Twain, to name a handful.

The Gleniffer Press, a Scottish publisher from 1968-2007, hand-set their limited edition miniatures. Among their beautiful books is an edition of “Three Blind Mice”, which is credited by Guinness Book of World Records as the tiniest letterpress volume in existence. A contemporary printer of miniature books, the Bo Press also forays into tiny curiosities and maps. The Microbibliophile blog covers miniature book news and provides an assortment of DIY resources. Today, the University of Iowa has one of the most impressive collections of miniature books, boasting some 4,000 titles.

The appeal of miniatures has persisted, speaking to people’s fondness for the diminutive and the embellished. Pushing the limits of what a miniature can be, Robert Chaplin, in 2007, printed Teeny Ted from Turnip Town using an ion beam. Teeny Ted fits nicely on the width of a human hair.