The Infant’s Library (London: Marshall, c.1800 – 1816)
Individual Book: 2 3/8 x 1 7/8 inches (6 x 4.6 cm)
Seen at the Lilly Library at Indiana University.
The Infant’s Library is housed in a wooden box whose cover resembles a glass-fronted bookcase in a library. The upper part of the box imitates the appearance of glass bookcase doors with volumes visible behind, while the bottom half mimics a lower cabinet with drawers. At the top of the cover, a decorative piece of woodwork simultaneously completes the illusion of box as bookcase and, more practically, serves as a grip for the reader to remove the cover. The cover slides up to reveal a set of sixteen miniature 2 3/8 by 1 7/8 inch volumes housed on two shelves. Each volume has a paper cover in a range of colors, each with the same oval label on the cover reading “The Infant’s Library.”
This box set was sold as a child’s miniature library by John Marshall at the turn of the 19th century; similar sets from the period published by Marshall include The Cabinet of Lilliput (London: Marshall, 1802), The Book-case of Instruction and Delight (London: Marshall, 1802) and The Doll’s Library (London, Marshall: c. 1800). The first fifteen volumes of this series bear the same title page, with the series title (Infant’s Library) and publication info accompanied by the book number. The sixteenth volume is titled “A Short History of England for the Infant’s Library,” and was presumably published and added to the collection after the others.
Individual volumes represent a progression from letters, the building blocks of language, to full sentences. Book I is an alphabet with a full-page letter and its corresponding illustration on non-facing consecutive pages. Like My Alphabet Book, this miniature volume does not distinguish between the respective sizes of Lion and Mouse; the two animals are both represented within small circular discs. Book II marks a progression from single letters to paired vowels and consonants, arranged first in nonsensical arrangements (“ab ac ad af ag ah ak al am”), next as short words, and finally as nouns with adjectives (“A good boy,” “A fairy child,” “A nice book,” “A neat doll”). The pairing of the vowels and consonants in the first pages structurally mirrors the pairing of adjective and nouns at the end; implicitly, this volume suggests, letters fit together as words just as words fit together as descriptions. Small things inevitably marches towards larger ones. Books 3-15 offer short descriptions of scenes, accompanied by full pages illustrations. Just as the complexity of language has expanded, from letters in Book 1 to full sentences in Book 3, so too the illustrations have visually grown, from half-page circles in Book I that recall the microscope’s focused field of view to full-page, telescopic illustrations in Book III that illustrate scenes taken from the world.
The author dedicates the set in Book III to an unnamed child, using the opportunity to announce the volume’s aim to entertain. “My dear,” he writes, “These little volumes I dedicate to you, as they were principally intended for your amusement” (2). There is, of course, much about these volumes to amuse the child, as a doll-scaled imitation of the shelves that children might have seen in their own parents’ libraries. Like most eighteenth-century books, he volumes educate while entertaining, teaching both alphabetic knowledge and visual observation. The miniature size of these volumes renders them toy-sized, proportional to the child’s dolls, even as it mimics adult libraries, the source of parents’ understanding. In this sense, the size of the volumes suggests how the child’s entertaining work of learning will lead them (in time) to the broad scope of parental knowledge and power. Through the enchanting portal of these miniature volumes, the child moves from the alphabet of the nursery into the observation of the world. Although the child now gazes at the minute pages of a miniature book, the volume promises that reading this book will give him or her the ability to understand the whole world.