The Typographic Hub

Technically tiny

3rd October 2010

The production of miniature books has been an enduring fascination for the public, but it also allows printers to demonstrate their technical prowess

If you were luck enough to visit the Wonder Room in Selfridges’ Department Store at the end of last year, you may have noticed a rather unusual typographic gift for sale: a small leather-bound book, measuring just 2.4 x 2.9 mm and presented in a wooden box, which included a magnifying glass, this was the world’s smallest book and it has taken the art of printing and bookbinding to an entirely new level of precision.  

Designed by German typographer Joshua Reichert, this tiny ABC-picture book was decorated with a specially created colourful alphabet. Published by Die Gestalten and printed in the traditional book city of Leipzig, the ABC was produced by conventional methods but using minute machinery and tools created specifically for the purpose. Printed in an edition of 300, Selfridges were selling the last remaining copies for £70: a veritable bargain for those searching the perfect Christmas gift.

Miniature publications have always had great appeal, collectors of tiny typographic items are plentiful, and Miniature Book societies have sprung up around the globe to nurture their habit. To the collector tiny books are charming curiosities to be marveled at; to their producers they are admirable vehicles by which to demonstrate both artistic achievement and technical supremacy over their rivals – they are also a great publicity stunt.

Miniature books were seldom found in the earliest years of printing. Initially metal type was only cast in relatively large sizes unsuitable for use on small pages. But by the closing decade of the 15th century refinements in the arts of punch-cutting and typecasting made it possible to produce types in sizes so small that they could be used in the production of miniature books.

The earliest known small format book was the Diurnale Moguntinum printed by Peter Schoeffer in Mainz, (1468). With a type area measuring 65 x 94 mm only two imperfect leaves of this volume survive in the archives of the Biblioteque Nationale, Paris. An even smaller book was the Officium Beatae Mariae Virginis printed by Mathias Moravus in Naples (1490), a chunky little sextodecimo comprising 106 vellum leaves the type area measured just 40 x 62 mm.

In the 16th century intermittent attempts were made to produce books in miniature formats - although they were usually more curious than useful. Unfolded sheets have survived of a Kalendarium printed by Christopher Plantin in 1570, which is a foolscap imposed in a single sheet with 16 signatures; its uncut leaves measure only 43 x 26 mm.

Back in the 17th century it was particularly fashionable for people to buy tiny books, which they would carry around in their pockets or next to their heart. Legend has it that Anne Boleyn even took a miniature copy of the Bible with her as she made her way to the executioner’s block.

Elzevier - the renowned firm of Dutch printers, publishers and booksellers - were great exploiters of the vogue and produced a wide selection of miniature publications in the hope of cashing in on the fashion for petite prints, but as spectacles were then neither common nor efficient the pocket editions soon lost their appeal and Elzevier stopped their tiny prints. 

In the mid-18th century the price of paper was often higher than the cost of printing, and unlike labour it had to be bought in advance of, rather than during, production. The distribution of the average 18th century print shop’s investment is interesting to contemplate: 28% of the total represented publications in stock; 26% unprinted paper; 24% items in production; 19% plant and 3% being miscellaneous assets. It was such considerations that led some 18th century printers to exploit the vogue for miniature editions, and thus reduce the total cost of paper and production by about 75%.

Social changes in the 19th century coupled with the industrial revolution led to an increase in both books and readers. A more widespread interest in education and a large increase in literacy, as well as technological changes in the printing and publishing industry made the mass production of reading matter for the newly literate classes a fast growing industry. The 19th century was the supreme age of the miniature book – particularly for children - and printers of the day turned out a fantastic array of minute juvenile literature.  Religious tract societies produced immense quantities of tiny books, often distributed free or at cost.

The increase in book production in general and small publications in particular was made possible, in part, by the widespread use of stereotype plates that had been invented in the previous century. In addition lithography was introduced as a new method of reproduction, and later in the century photo-reduction and photo-lithography were also available to the printers of miniature books.

Whilst new reproduction technologies were introduced, type-founders continued to cast high quality small sizes of type, and printers and publishers such as William Pickering and David Bryce & Son, Glasgow took full advantage of the technology with their miniature book productions.

The 19th century engraver’s ability to work in microscopic detail led to a generalised craze for miniature inscriptions, principally of prayers and other religious texts, and occasionally for messages of affection. The fad found expression in engraved mementoes, particularly as decorative keepsakes for carrying in pocket watches. The text, usually occupied a circular area of no more than 15mm diameters, adorned with a decorative filigree pattern. The most popular texts were the Lords Prayer and the Creed, whilst more ambitious works featured the Ten Commandments, which were sometimes reproduced in different languages.

The engraver’s skill lay not only in producing legible characters at a small size, but also in disposing the text completely in the space allocated to it. Some engravers were able to reduce the texts so much that, as part of a decorative design, they could hardly be seen. The miniature text was also used for the production of novelty pictures, in which all or part of the image was composed of an extended text, the wording being so small that it simply appeared as varying tones of gray.

The idea of the miniature text took another direction in the 20th century when draughtsmen at the Ordnance Survey Office would practice writing the Lord’s Prayer small enough to fit several times on to a silver three-penny piece. It was claimed that OS draughtsman Tommy Muir achieved the astonishing feat of fitting twenty complete texts of the prayer on the back of a three-penny piece using a sable brush that tapered to two or three hairs.

The Monotype Corporation also demonstrated its technical prowess in the field of typecasting when it produced the whole of the Lord’s Prayer on the face of a 12pt em. Each letter measured just .0065” from head to foot, whilst the entire text of the pray together with the other wording occupied only 3/6ths of a square inch. It was a remarkable feat of precision engineering.

Whilst bibles, prayers and children’s books might have cornered the miniature market, the newspaper industry was not slow to realise the promotional value of micro-versions of its own publications. By the end of the 19th century few British newspapers had failed to put out one or more such issues, either in celebration of some national event, or as a standard gift to readers who visited the plant to see the paper being printed.

The best known of these was the issue of The Times 1 January 1924, specially printed to a scale of 1 inch to a 1 foot for inclusion in the Queen’s dolls’ house, Queen Mary’s contribution to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The newspaper took its place in the doll’s house in the company of similarly diminutive versions of Who’s Who, Whitaker’s Almanac, Bradshaw and the ABC. The publisher printed many thousand copies, giving them away to visitors to the Exhibition. The version for general distribution differed from the dolls’ house specimen in size: it was thought mothers might be anxious in case their children strained their eyes reading it and so a two-inch-to-the foot version was also produced.

Other examples include the 50,000th edition of The Times (25 November 1944) measuring 280 x 205mm and an issue for The Daily Telegraph (20 June 1970) measuring 139 x 100 mm.


Dr Caroline Archer, Reader in Typography, Birmingham Institute of Art & Design, BCU