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A Brief History of Tiny Books

Rachel Sherlock By Rachel Sherlock Published on November 14, 2016

From pocket-sized to postage stamp-sized, tiny books have long proved that bigger is not always better. Throughout history people have had an interest in creating books that were small, easily portable, and convenient to store.

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The world's smallest book, displayed on half poppy seed. Source: Vladimir Aniskin

Even before the printing press, there were diminutive manuscripts, papyrus, and tablets, often used for legal documents and receipts. The earliest examples we have, are cuneiform tablets from 2000 B.C. From there, the tradition has continued up to the present day, with continued efforts to make smaller and smaller books. Currently the title for world’s smallest book is held by micro-miniaturist Vladimir Aniskin, who has created a book measuring just 0.07mm by 0.09mm.

These examples, from opposite ends of history, also bring us all the way from the purely practical to the utterly fanciful. Most tiny books lie somewhere in the middle. Nowhere is this more true than of the most popular genre in diminutive books: religious texts. They were designed so that the decrees of faith could be kept close at hand or even close to heart. The idea was incredibly popular and in particular miniature Bibles and Thumb Bibles were so numerous that they now warrant their own genre among miniature books. Along with their practical purpose of reflection and reference, their status as sacred texts meant that they easily became treasured objects, decorated with illustrations, engravings, gilding, and even jewels. 

Yet religious texts were not the only books to undergo decadent decoration. Along with almanacs, dictionaries, and novels, perhaps the most fascinating examples can be found in the library created in 1928 for Queen Mary’s Dollhouse. To fill the dollhouse’s library, the great writers of the time hand wrote original short stories that were then bound in leather and decorated with gold leaf. These books, measuring just 1.5 inches tall included works from Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Sir James Barrie and Edith Wharton. These books are delightful in their miniature dignity and consequence, containing the frivolous snippets of the greatest writers of an age.

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Not all tiny libraries were so decorative, however. Napoleon carried a miniature library with him on his campaigns. He had a thousand volumes printed specially for the purpose of his edification. Printed in a minuscule font and without margins, to best economize on space, the topics of the books ranged from religion to poetry to historical memoirs. Despite their deliberately compressed design, such an extensive library can hardly be considered portable for anyone other than an emperor. However there have been other projects to arm troops with travel-sized books. From 1943-1947, the Council of Books in Wartime printed 122,951,031 books for the American troops serving in World War II. These books, which were called Armed Services Editions, were designed to be small and compact, and to provide entertainment and education. Bringing classic novels to a mass audience, the campaign was a huge success among the troops but also in the wider culture. The project directly impacted the revival of The Great Gatsby, along with popularizing the paperback format. In this, the campaign lived up to the Council of Books’ slogan:

Books are weapons in the war of ideas.

Of course that slogan has been true throughout history, and tiny books have been to the fore of history-making books. Between 1862 and 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, both its preliminary draft and its final version, were printed in a small booklet form. It is estimated that over a million copies were printed and distributed by the Union troops across the countryside, announcing the end of slavery in America. It is a testament to the way small books have been used to spread ideas, and change history.

With all that tiny books have to offer, from quaint decoration to political impact, you may be inspired to begin your own miniature library. Here are some of our recommendations to get you started. There’s a lot to choose from, but you could always buy them all to create a giant tiny library.

Of course classics are a great place to start any book collection, but most people associate the genre with weighty leather-bound tomes. This needn’t be the case, there are plenty of ways to incorporate literature’s most revered authors and books into your tiny collection.

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The Penguin Little Black Classics series offers a range of short, and often unknown works by famous authors. They give readers the opportunity to explore the writing of world renowned authors within a short number of pages, for an affordable price. These glimpses into classic literature are perfect to get maximum impact in minimum space, with each author taking just a few millimetres. 

Here are some of our suggestions to get you started:

While Penguin’s editions are fantastic to discover a range of classic authors, you may have your heart set on their longer works. Luckily there  are plenty of editions of classic novels that have been printed in a diminutive size. The Macmillan Collector’s Library is a beautiful set of classic hardback editions that would easily slip into a coat pocket. Their design is elegant, with endpapers, gilt edges and ribbon marker that is reminiscent of the craftsmanship of earlier centuries. Similar to these is the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets collection. This series has a variety of poetry books, from the works of selected poets, to anthologies of a genre, to compilations on a variety of themes such as friendship or love. These series combined cover a large portion of the canon of classic literature, so you may need to reinforce your pockets for all the weight of knowledge they will be carrying around.

Children’s literature has an abundance of small editions, but we would be remiss not to mention the author who first insisted that her books be small enough for children’s hands. Beatrix Potter’s stories continue to be printed in the iconic small editions, and they continue to influence approaches to designing children’s books. 

Still, there’s always room to go smaller, and while we may not have all had a specially commissioned dollhouse library growing up, we can now take a step towards this dream. Two of the books from Queen Mary’s dollhouse collection have been released: Conan Doyle’s How Watson Learned the Trick: A Sherlock Holmes Story, and Fougasse’s fairytale J. Smith. No bigger than a postage stamp, these books, presented in a larger box, replicate the originals with their regal yet quaint charm. 

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Where the previous recommendations have looked to the past for inspiration, there are some publishers who are looking to the future. Flipback books are a relatively new way of printing, where the book opens top to bottom, and the text is sideways aligned to run the length of the book, parallel to the spine. This creates a much more compact book, about the size of a smartphone, and just as portable.

Finally, if you were inspired by the impact small books have had on culture and history, then you’ll be glad to find they are still being used to spread ideas and to inspire cultural change. There are a range of talks, speeches and essays that have been printed in small single editions, to keep close and have as a point of reference. They continue to inspire readers and remind them that even a few pages can change the world.

Editorial content writer at Bookwitty. Lives up to her name by having a housemate called Watson, but is still working on the violin-playing and crime-solving.