Miniature books: highlights from the collections (and the smallest book at ISU)

Collection of four miniature books in a slipcase, with a quarter for scale.

Collection of miniature books in a slipcase containing printers’ ornament specimens. Published by Alembic Press, Oxford, 1990-1992. Call number: Z250.3 C64x 1990.

Of all the types of rare and collectible books, perhaps miniature books are the most delightful. In the United States, books are generally considered to be miniature when they measure 3 inches or fewer in length or width. Miniature books have been produced since before the invention of printing. In fact, Louis Bondy, in his respected reference book on the subject, Miniature Books: their history from the beginnings to the present day, cites the oldest known miniature “book” as a Sumerian cuneiform clay tablet that dates to somewhere between 2060 and 2058 B.C.E. It measures 1 5/16 by 1 5/8 inches.

Books have been produced in small sizes for years for obvious reasons: portability and hideability. They are also produced as a test of craftsmanship and skill. The smallest of the miniature books are known as ultra-microminiatures, measuring less than ¼ inch in height, such as the ultra-microminiature Bible discovered last year at the University of Iowa Special Collections.

While Iowa State University Special Collections does not have any microscopic miniature books, nor any that are quite as old as a Sumerian clay tablet, we do have a number of fine and interesting specimens in a range of genres.

A popular type of miniature book in the 19th century was the etiquette book, such as ISU’s Routledge’s Etiquette for Ladies, published around 1864. Measuring 10 cm, this is a readable book that a lady might easily have put in her reticule for ready reference on the current rules for paying visits, walking with gentlemen, staying at a friend’s house, and when and under what circumstances to accept an invitation to dance at a ball. You can see below how well-used this particular volume was by the worn cover and detached binding.

Title page and cover photos of Routledge's etiquette for ladies.

Title page and cover of “Routledge’s etiquette for ladies,” ca. 1864. Call number: BJ1872 .R68x.

As with etiquette books, miniature religious books were popular in the 19th century. These included “thumb Bibles,” or Bible summaries in miniature size, books of the Psalms, and even miniatures of the complete Bible, as well as prayer books and devotionals. ISU owns Dew Drops, published by the American Tract Society around 1834, a devotional book of daily Bible quotations. It measures 6 by 4 cm. Here are pages from late January:

Pages from "Dew Drops" showing daily entries for the end of January.

Pages from “Dew Drops” showing daily entries for the end of January. Call number: BS390 D4x.

Three American political miniature books were created in the early 20th century by students at the Kingsport Press in Tennessee, and they are among the smallest books at ISU. These are Addresses of Abraham Lincoln, 1929; Extracts from the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, 1930; and Washington: His Farewell Address, 1932. According to Ann C. Bromer and Julian I. Edison in their book Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures, these three books were typeset by hand and then photographically reduced to fit the page size. The final products measure from 21 to 22 mm. They are indeed small works of art! ISU Special Collections owns all three:

Three miniature books: Addresses of Abraham Lincoln; Washington: His Farewell Address, and Excerpts from the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge.

Addresses of Abraham Lincoln, 1929 (E457.95 .L638a); Washington: His Farewell Address, 1932 (E312.95 1932); and Excerpts from the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge, 1930 (E792 C615 1930x). Published by Kingsport Press.

What is the smallest book that ISU Special Collections owns? For many years, it was thought to be the Extracts from the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge from the trio mentioned above, but as I was searching through the collections in preparation for this post, I discovered an even smaller volume. It is possible that there is one still smaller as yet undiscovered, but my candidate for Smallest Book at ISU Special Collections is: American Birds, original illustrations by Amanda Epstein, published around 1979-1982.

Three views of the book American Birds by Amanda Epstein: page of bobolink illustration, cover next to a nickel, title page.

Top left: pages for the bobolink; lower left: cover; right: title page. American Birds, original illustrations by Amanda Epstein, published ca. 1979-1982. Call number: QL682 E67x 1979.

At 20 mm it is definitely the smallest I’ve found!

Miniature books can be found in ISU’s catalog by doing a subject search for “Miniature books — Specimens”.

If you are interested in collecting miniature books yourself, check out the Miniature Book Society.

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