A Little Luxury: Early Miniature Antique Books and Their Uses
Miniature antique books have been around for centuries. Initially published primarily for personal convenience, miniature books first came on the scene around the 15th century.
The little volumes were often toted around in men’s waistcoat pockets and ladies’ reticules (small handbags). This practice was considered pretty keen in its day; carrying around a book effortlessly was very appealing. For some people, the micro size was a social weapon of sorts, obscuring the text from the eyes around the room, after all, knowledge is power!
Early American miniature books along with most European miniature books started off like their larger contemporaries – the texts were typically on moral subjects and the bindings were plain.
As miniature books became more popular, the subject matter contained within these minute works greatly expanded and by the time the eighteenth century rolled around, there was a vast array of different types of miniature books including children’s books and poetry.
Miniature book binding becomes an art
During this time, printing and book binding techniques improved and book makers displayed their skills by creating even smaller books with increasingly intricate and beautiful bindings. The ability to make and bind a book in miniature was (and is) a special talent and would prove an asset in showcasing a bookbinder’s technique and skill.
Miniature books from almost every genre were available throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, including classic fiction, dictionaries, Bibles, prayer books, and even non-fiction works like fishing guides, designed for the reader out in the field. Publishers also began producing miniature libraries for children, specially designing the books to be more comfortably held in small hands.
How miniature antique books measure up
Did you know that one of the smallest documented miniature books actually fits on a poppy seed? That amazing piece was created in 2006 by a Russian book binder. Yes, the art form is still in use today!
While today’s miniature book binders have the advantage of technology, binders of long ago were able to turn out some incredibly small sizes.
Today, is possible to find miniature antique books smaller than half an inch in size, often featuring gilt work and intricate designs.
For instance, the Salmin Brothers publishing company produced “Galileo a Madama Cristina de Lorena” in miniature in 1896, a work that was beautifully bound despite its small size.
What was even even more remarkable was that the book was sized at just 0.7 by 0.4 inches – that’s small enough to fit on a penny!
“The text is printed in “fly’s eye type,” which is so small that when the Salmin Brothers first used it, for Dante’s Divine Comedy, it reportedly damaged the eyesight of the typesetter. This time, it was used in a title about one-third the size of the previous example—the smallest book ever printed with hand-set, movable type.” (Atlas Obscura)
Our favorite miniature antique book acquisitions
Over the years, we have had some very interesting miniature antique books come through our shop. Here are three of our favorites:
The English Bijou (19th Century)
Smaller than a matchstick, this tiny miniature book called The English Bijou was produced in 1836. Before examining the Bijou, the user would encounter its beautiful carrying case, an intricately designed little box covered in leather and lined in champagne colored velvet. Originally, the box would also have contained a small magnifying glass. The Bijou itself is an almanac and was so small that it could nearly fit onto a quarter coin.
Satcheled Almanac (19th Century)
Measuring just 1 ¼” square, this miniature antique almanac was produced at the turn of the 19th century, and is encased in a gorgeous red leather satchel with a working clasp. Examples with clasps in this condition are rare and highly sought after by miniature antique book collectors. Inside, beautifully colorful marbled endpapers encased a detailed almanac for the year of 1800. The piece even includes a little pocket for storage; some used it for inserting stamps.
Jeremiah Rich’s New Testament in Shorthand (17th Century)
This work ranks among the oldest we’ve carried and one of the most interesting. Published around 1673, it features the text of the book of the New Testament written in shorthand, the book of Psalms in Meter according to the art of short-writing. Two volumes in one, the work is engraved throughout, engraved titles and portrait-frontispieces of Rich, list of subscribers, bound in contemporary morocco gilt.