The Fascinating World of Miniature Books
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN BRITAIN
EXTREMES are intriguing—the highest mountain, the deepest ocean, the tallest building, the longest tunnel—so, what about the smallest book? Miniature books are fascinating! Millions of them have been printed, on every conceivable subject and in at least 20 languages. If you have not explored their world, take a brief look now.
How do we define a miniature book? The accepted norm is a book that does not exceed three inches [76 mm] in either height or width. These measurements include the binding, although some meticulous collectors do prefer to consider just the book pages. Why were these miniature volumes printed?
Facets of the Art
Contrary to what one might expect, most miniature books are quite legible. Miniature almanacs, classic texts, novels, plays, dictionaries, and sacred writings can therefore be carried and used with little effort. Although years ago this would have been a prime reason to possess such tiny volumes, the modern collector is more concerned with another aspect of miniature books: the skill of those who printed and bound them.
Printers had to overcome many technical problems to design and make type that would be legible, with or without the use of a magnifying glass. Much of their work has resulted in books of great beauty. Paper and ink manufacturers also pooled their skills to ensure pristine clarity of the printed page.
After a book is printed, it is bound; and the bindings of miniature books can be exquisite. Craftsmen’s skills are evident in the production of tiny covers of tooled leather, gold or silver filigree, tortoiseshell, or decorated enamel. Other covers are of silk or velvet or are embroidered or even decorated with pearls and sequins, and some books have slipcases to preserve them.
The engravers who illustrated the texts created unbelievably detailed pictures, often covering less than one square inch of paper! An example is the portrait of Dr. Samuel Johnson, the English lexicographer, in the 368-page Bryce’s Thumb English Dictionary, printed in the 1890’s; and another is the illustration facing the title page of Shakespeare’s King Richard III, dedicated in 1909 to the English actress Ellen Terry.
The Bibliothèque Portative du Voyageur, published in Paris, is a miniature library that is thought to have been carried by Napoléon Bonaparte during his military campaigns. Its 49 volumes of French classics are kept in a leather-covered box, which when locked has the appearance of a large folio-size book.
Thumb Bibles are not necessarily complete Bibles. Some are just “New Testaments.” Others are epitomes of Bible stories or contain the whole history of the Bible condensed into about 7,000 words, and they were designed specifically to be read by children. They have such titles as The Bible in Miniature, The History of the Holy Bible, and The Child’s Bible.
How did the thumb Bible get its name? The obvious explanation is that such a Bible is little bigger than the top part of a human thumb. Yet the book Three Centuries of Thumb Bibles suggests that the term may have been coined following the visit to England of the famous American midget Charles Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb. Backing up this claim is the fact that Tom Thumb visited England in 1844 and the term “thumb Bible” appears to have been used for the first time in London in 1849.
Unusual Scripture Volumes
A curious addition to the world of small Bibles is The Finger New Testament, printed about the turn of the century. It is only 1 3/16 inches [3 cm] wide and 3 9/16 inches [9 cm] long—finger length—hence, its name. However, since it is over three inches [76 mm] in length, it is not, strictly speaking, a miniature book, although it is generally classified with such Bibles. The 4-point type size used in this little volume is crystal clear and easily read by many without the use of magnification.
An unusual example is entitled The Illustrated Bible, with verses entitled Railway to Heaven. It remained in print for over 50 years during the early days of Britain’s railways. The author capitalized on the railways, with a two-page poem entitled “To Point You to Another Line.” That other line is identified as “Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Son.” The poem concludes: “My son, says God, give me thy heart. Make haste—or else the train will start.”
Also unusual is the volume My Morning Counsellor, of the year 1900. It features a daily Bible text, and each month is prefaced by some form of the divine name. The form for February, for example, is “Jehovah-Shalom.” Both this book and The Illustrated Bible, previously mentioned, demonstrate the fact that Jehovah, the name of God, was in common use in Britain a hundred years ago.
Over the centuries many claims have been made for the smallest printed book. The first valid claim was made in 1674 when the book Bloem-Hofje, by C. van Lange, was printed in tiny type. Miniature Books describes it as being “the size of a finger-nail,” and it set a record that held for over 200 years.
A famous edition of Dante’s La Divina Commedia was printed in 2-point type, thought to be the smallest type ever employed—hardly legible to the naked eye. The book was produced in Padua, Italy, in 1878. It took a month to print 30 pages, and new type was necessary for every new form. Despite this, 1,000 copies were printed.
Reductions in size continued. In 1978 the nursery rhyme Three Blind Mice from the Gleniffer Press at Paisley, Scotland, became the “smallest book in the world.” This limited edition was surpassed in 1985 by the same printers when they produced 85 copies of another nursery rhyme, Old King Cole! Each copy measures just 1/25 [1 mm] by 1/25 inch [1 mm]. The pages can be turned—with the aid of a needle!
Such minuscule books, described by Louis Bondy as “hardly more than specks of dust,” give evidence of untold patience and craftsmanship. However, these tiny books go beyond the original concept of miniature books, which was to produce books that are legible and readily usable.
Fine collections of these delightful miniature volumes can be seen in museums, and many others are in private hands. If you ever enter their fascinating world, remember to handle these tiny books with great care. They are indeed works of art!
[Box/Picture on page 14]
The smallest “New Testament” ever produced was by David Bryce, of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1895. It measures 3/4 [1.9 cm] by 5/8 inch [1.6 cm] and is only 5/16 inch [0.8 cm] thick! How was it possible to print this? “It is finely and clearly printed in photo-mechanical reduction,” explains Louis Bondy in Miniature Books. With photography in its infancy a hundred years ago, this was no small achievement.
David Bryce also printed a number of complete Thumb Bibles using the same method. For those who have difficulty reading the fine print, each Bible has a little magnifying glass tucked inside the cover binding. With this aid, reading is possible for those who persevere.
It is noteworthy that the process of printing photographically reduced publications was turned to good use by Jehovah’s Witnesses during their persecution both by the Nazis during World War II and by the Communists later. Seen in the accompanying illustration is a Bible study aid printed by this method. Concealed in a matchbox, it was smuggled to Witnesses in a Nazi concentration camp.
This fit in a matchbox and was smuggled into a concentration camp
[Picture on page 13]
Although small, miniature books can be legible
[Picture on page 15]
A library of miniature books