Introductions & Miniature Alphabets

At the LIlly Library at Indiana University

At the LIlly Library at Indiana University

In studying the miniature in the Victorian period, I regularly come across extraordinary miniature objects that require us to rethink our understanding of Victorian material culture. In this blog, I plan to share my discoveries with my readers, profiling a different object each week. Recently, I have been conducting research in a variety of rare books rooms across the country, including the Lilly Library at Indiana University, and I am eager to share some of my most notable discoveries!

Miniature books are typically defined according to their external proportions; most miniature book collectors agree that miniature books must be three inches or less in all directions. During the Victorian period, advances in technical production meant that vast numbers of these minutely proportioned books could be produced; according to one scholar’s estimate, 3,000 distinct miniature books were produced over the course of the century. [1] Popular genres of miniature books included thumb bibles (abridged versions of the Holy Scripture), prayer books, miniature libraries children’s alphabets, almanacs or reference books, fairy tales, histories and travel books. The profiles of miniature books that follow are organized to give the reader a sampling of Victorian miniature books, while also reflecting the author’s adventures in the archives.


Photo Feb 27, 3 36 05 PMMy Tiny Alphabet Book (Glasgow: David Bryce, 1900) : 1 1/8 x 7/8 inches (2.8 x 2.2 cm) [2]

Seen at the Lilly Library at Indiana University.

My Tiny Alphabet Book measures just 1 1/8 of an inch by 7/8 of an inch, making it approximately the size of a human fingernail. The front of the volume displays the book’s title accompanied by a circular image depicting a young girl sitting on a stool and holding a book. The girl serves, on the one hand, as an image of the book’s imagined reader. Yet the book in the image, unlike this volume, is full-sized and fits easily into the girl’s hands. On the back cover of the book, an advertisement emblazons the words “Mellon’s Food” in enormous script across the pink background. Beneath, in a minute script that is illegible without a microscope, appear the words “Ora et Labora” which in Latin means “Pray and work.”

Inside the volume, entire pages are filled with basic alphabet inscriptions. Each letter is written twice, once in red upper-case lettering and a second time in Photo Feb 27, 3 46 07 PMblack lower-case lettering. “E e is for elephant” accompanies a color picture of an elephant on the facing page, the image of the enormous animal measuring about 1 by 5/8 of an inch on the page. A few pages later, the words “M m is for mouse” accompanies a color picture of a mouse, the small rodent possessing virtually the same proportions as the gigantic elephant. In both cases, the letters of the alphabet match the animals in size, as if to suggest an equivalency between the animals and the basic units of language.

My Tiny Alphabet Book was sold in a silver metal hinged case measuring 1 3/8 by 1 1/8 of an inch, that could be worn as a necklace if the owner ran a chain through the small metal loop atop the case. A magnifying glass was embedded in the side of the case, so that the reader might easily parse minute type. Considering the size of the print inside the volume, however, the microscope served more to underline the tininess of the volume than actually to aid in reading. On the other side of the case, pressed into the metal casing, the inscription “Midget-Book with Magnifying Glass” appears, accompanied with the image of a globe atop a stack of books. The round shape of the magnifying glass echoes the round shape of the globe, suggesting an imaginative equivalency between the very small (the microscopic) and the very large (the global). This equivalency is reified by the fact that the image of a little girl reading also appears within a circle. Reading this miniature book, the volume implies, at once draws the owner into the realm of the miniscule (the miniature book) and exposes him or her to the varied creatures of the earth (“E e is for elephant”)

1. Doris V. Welsh. A History of Miniature Books (Albany: Fort Orange Press, 1987), 35.
2. All measurements and photos are the author’s own. Thanks to the Lilly Library for their generous Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship, which allowed me to visit their archive.

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