Defined as no more than three inches in height or width, miniature books were first produced with convenience in mind. Early miniature books mainly consisted of moral texts with simple bindings, such as Bibles or books of common prayer, hymnals, and books on etiquette, that could be carried in coat pockets or small purses.
One example from the Virginia Historical Society’s collection is a canary-yellow Book of Common Prayer published around 1890 in England. The 688 pages inside the five-and-a-half-centimeter-tall book contain the entire Book of Psalms, a calendar of holy days, and prayers for a multitude of religious services.
The Diamond Songster, a collection of Irish ballads published in 1812, is an even older work that appears to have gotten a lot of use throughout its life. Though not technically a hymnal, the two-and-a-half-inch work is a good example of a nineteenth-century miniature songbook simply bound with unadorned pages for purely utilitarian purposes.
As books became more affordable and common by the twentieth century, subject matter as well as the purposes of miniature books expanded. They were used to conceal controversial literature, extremely small works could be slipped into packages as advertisements, and children’s stories were printed in miniature for their convenience. Books also began to be printed in miniature to showcase the skills of a particular printer or printing press.
Robert Archer’s The Night after Christmas, printed at Attic Press in Richmond, Virginia, is a cautionary tale for children about overindulging during the holidays. Although a children’s story, the marbled covering on the two-and-a-half-inch binding, hand-painted illustrations, and decorative text are clearly intended to display the talent of the artists who assembled the work.
A more recent acquisition is Mary Ann Brandt’s Miniature Finger Paintings, printed at another Richmond press, Cyclone Books. Creating a three-inch miniature book with full-size reproductions of the artist’s miniature paintings perfectly captures the spirit of paintings while showing the artistic talent of the press.
Today, miniature books are more popular than ever and even have their own society. The books cover a wide variety of topics and can be utilitarian, works of art, or a combination of both. The VHS itself has twenty-five unique miniature books ranging from the Bible to famous speeches to literary works, with the smallest tome, Addresses of Abraham Lincoln, measuring in at just two centimeters tall.
Although it may be necessary to bring a magnifying glass, these works can be freely viewed in the society’s reading room.
Amber Jones is cataloging library assistant at the Virginia Historical Society.