FEATURE — Fall 2008

Julian Edison loaned the University Libraries some 200 of his miniature books for the exhibit, Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures. He is holding Byron Andrews’ Facts About the Candidate, measuring 2 ¼ x 1 ¾ inches, which promoted the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt for president. (Photo by Mary Butkus)

Small Wonders

University Libraries hosted a big exhibit on miniature books, some 200 little gems provided by national council member and ardent collector Julian Edison.

By Candace O’Connor

The year was 764 A.D., nearly 700 years before the Gutenberg Bible launched the era of printing in Europe. In Japan, Empress Shotoku had just ascended to power, her kingdom still reeling from a deadly smallpox epidemic followed by political upheaval. To signal her gratitude for the end to these disasters, she had Buddhist prayers chiseled into wood blocks and printed on paper scrolls. These tiny scrolls, only 18 inches long and 2 ½ inches wide, were the world’s first printed texts on paper.

From tiny cuneiform tablets created in 2,000 B.C., to Empress Shotoku’s scrolls, to a silicon chip featuring more than 180,000 words from the Bible, miniature books have intrigued people since written history began. Erin Davis, curator of rare books, glimpsed this excitement firsthand when the Department of Special Collections mounted its recent exhibit, Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures, just outside the department’s offices in Olin Library.

“I don’t remember when we have had so much student interest in an exhibition,” says Davis. “We kept seeing students pointing and gesturing at the books, and sometimes they came back bringing parents or friends. We even found nose prints on the exhibit cases.”

The astronomer Galileo wrote a letter in 1615 appealing for the peaceful coexistence of science and religion. It angered the Catholic Church, and eventually Galileo was placed on lifelong house arrest for his heresies. In 1896, an Italian printer reproduced this letter using special “fly’s eye” type in a book that measured only ¾ inch by ½ inch—the smallest book printed from movable type. This technical marvel, which nearly blinded the compositor, became the most famous miniature book in the world.

Above: “London Almanacks,” dating from 1780 to 1875, displayed various bindery; this one measures 2 ³⁄8 x 1 ½ inches. Below: “The Infant’s Library,” by John Marshall (c. 1800), features 16 illustrated volumes, each measuring 2 ½ x 2 inches. (Photos by David Kilper)

Who can resist such wonders? Not Julian Edison, retired board chairman of Edison Brothers stores and an ardent bibliophile since the 1950s, who has one of the finest collections of miniature books in private hands. Years ago, his wife kindled his interest on their first anniversary, when she gave him a tiny nine-volume set of Shakespeare. This spring, he loaned the University some 200 of his books for the exhibit, which was previously shown at the Grolier Club in New York and at Harvard University, Edison’s alma mater.

His collecting enthusiasm has led Edison, a member of the Washington University Libraries National Council since 2000 and winner of the 2008 Dean’s Medal, to do some writing himself. In 2006, he and co-author Anne C. Bromer published a lavishly illustrated book, with the same title as the exhibit, which won first place as best-designed gift book at the 2008 New York Book Show. Edison also enjoys his longtime role as editor of Miniature Book News.

“In the collecting of anything, the chase is half the fun,” says Edison, who snagged his first large group of miniature books in London in 1964. Since then, he has scoured flea markets around the world, contacted book dealers and producers, bid in auctions, and combed through antique shops to find additions.

Charles Knowlton, a physician and freethinker, decided that Americans should know more about contraception, so in 1832 he published a miniature book—The Fruits of Philosophy: or The Private Companion of Young Married People—describing family planning methods, in explicit detail. The book, which landed Knowlton in prison for three months, became the first American medical handbook on this scandalous new subject.

Sometimes books appeared in small format because they dealt with controversial issues. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s full Emancipation Proclamation was first printed in book form in a 3-inch by 2 ¹⁄8-inch format, so that Union soldiers and freed citizens could carry it easily in their pockets. During the 1930s, a series of tiny Nazi propaganda booklets were printed with strings attached so recipients could proclaim their loyalty by hanging them from their lapels.

To qualify as a miniature, a book must be no larger than 3 inches in height, with a smaller form—microminiatures—less than 1 inch tall and the smallest of all—ultramicrominiatures—less than ¼ inch high. They cover a vast range of themes: religious (such as gorgeously decorated illuminated manuscripts), classical (portable 17th-century editions of Cicero and Seneca), almanacs (a London almanac from 1736 with a fold-out engraving of the Thames), or political (1904 campaign propaganda promoting Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential bid).

(From left) Empress Shotoku’s Dharani scrolls are the oldest printed text on paper in the world (Japan, c. 770). Each measures 2 ½ x 18 inches. Piso’s Pocket Book Almanac (The Piso Company; Pennsylvania) measures 2 x 1 ³⁄8 inches; it was part of a series of advertising almanacs distributed by druggists claiming to cure ailments in the early 1900s. This version of the epic poem Os Lusíadas, by Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1900), has a decorative gold filigree cover and measures 2 ½ x 2 inches. (Photos by David Kilper)

“Julian Edison’s collection is fascinating on two fronts, one aesthetic and one social,” says Shirley Baker, vice chancellor for scholarly resources and dean of University Libraries. “Almost everyone is fascinated by miniaturization: How much art and craft can go into how small an object? But these books also tell us much about society. What texts were important enough to carry on one’s person?”

In 1800, London publisher John Marshall decided that parents were not the only ones who deserved the pleasure of a book-filled library. Small children should have their own: a painted wooden bookcase housing two shelves full of tiny books. They depicted the world’s wonders: flowers and animals, letters and games, and a last volume on British history. Children were enthralled; the popularity of “The Infant’s Library” led to editions in Latin, German, and French.

Children always have been a key audience for tiny books. Among the earliest miniatures designed for them were “thumb Bibles” containing biblical stories, sometimes in rhyming couplets. In the 16th and 17th centuries, London publisher Thomas Boreman printed 10 miniature books for children devoted to the city’s monuments, including two Guildhall sculptures, Gog and Magog, which stood near Boreman’s own bookstall.

Adults also have taken a childlike interest in miniature books, particularly those intended as novelty items. One publisher produced a photographic strip of images, each little more than an inch high, and fitted into a nutshell, as a keepsake for St. Louis visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair. In 1988, a Mexican artist created a fluttery fold-out, Monarch, with pages shaped like butterfly wings.

“The collection covers such a broad span of time and yet is so compact. It encompasses novelty items and books on serious subjects—so many facets of book history,” says Anne Posega, head of Special Collections at Olin Library.

In producing the binding for one 17th-century religious text, an Italian maker spared no expense. The book’s covers, inside and out, are inset with enameled Nativity scenes against an opulent gold background. Eight emeralds adorn the corner rosettes, with two more gems on the figured gold clasps.

Along with their texts, miniature books may have glorious bindings, elegant printing, and lovely illustrations. One French publisher commissioned 20th-century artists Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, and Georges Braque to illustrate several tiny volumes. How can Julian Edison possibly decide which he likes best?

“They are like my children and grandchildren,” he says. “They are all my favorites.”

Candace O’Connor is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.