25 August 2022
Stephanie Narrow is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of California, Irvine, and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
NB: This article contains an historical image and descriptions relating to slavery and indentured servitude which readers may find upsetting.
Beyond a shared language and general oceanic orientation, 19th-century California and Britain's Pacific colonies don’t appear to have much in common at first glance. And true, they differed greatly in terms of government organization, class structure, and the proper way to spell “pajamas” (or is it “pyjamas?”)
But when we factor in issues like 19th-century immigration, land rights, diplomacy, and the circulation of print media between these regions, we encounter more similarities than differences. And, indeed, these very issues echo into the 21st century. Exploring the historical entanglements between the American empire in California and Britain’s Pacific Empire better equips us in the present day to address issues of xenophobia, access to natural resources, and ongoing demands for decolonization.
It was my drive to better understand the evolution of these issues that brought me some 5,437 miles (or 8,750 kilometers? See, those pesky cultural differences arise again!) from California to the British Library in London. Through the generous support of a Visiting Fellowship from the Eccles Centre for American Studies, I came eager to research the entangled histories of the British and American empires during the height of the Pacific gold rushes in the 1850s. In particular, I wanted to explore how gold rushes impacted both Chinese immigration and Indigenous land dispossession; and how, or if, these empires shaped their own modes of imperial governance around each other. Was California looking to British colonies in Hong Kong, Australia, India, and British Columbia to shape their own policies about Chinese immigration, trade, resource extraction, and Native genocide? Or vice versa?
To help answer these questions, I turned to the papers of Henry Herbert, 4th Earl of Carnarvon—an aristocrat and lifelong politician who served as the Foreign Secretary during much of this period. As Foreign Secretary, he was the head of diplomatic relations with foreign countries and was the person to whom the British Consulate in San Francisco, California, reported. I was convinced that his papers held the answers I was searching for.
As I was perusing the thick folios of his correspondence, I greedily anticipated that “eureka!” moment (gold rush pun intended) that would clearly, decisively, and unequivocally support my hypothesis. And certainly, I found much material that helped me reconstruct global diplomatic relations in this period. I did, however, come across something rather unexpected.
Here I beg for an indulgent pause and reflection on “the historical profession.” As historians, our job is to go into archives, research, and from that research tell stories that both illuminate our past and (hopefully) shed light on our present moment. We’re taught to be objective, logical. From the outside, it seems a rather neat and tidy experiment (though in reality it never is.) But nowhere in my nearly decade of graduate school training was I ever taught what to do when you find something that so wholly disturbs the peace and tranquility of the reading room.
So, one very normal morning, I turned the page of one of Carnarvon’s many folios and came across a report. It included tables of ships’ cargoes, routes, and destinations. But the following note on one table sent chills across my body:
“Many of the Chinese jumped overboard.”
This was a line in a ledger documenting the suicide of Chinese labourers aboard British sailing vessels who were sent, many through force or coercion, to Cuba in the 1850s. This “coolie trade” began in the 1840s and consisted mostly of men from China and South Asia. These labourers were often kidnapped or duped by British agents (as well as French, American, Spanish…) into so-called indentured servitude in the Caribbean, a very colonial labour solution to the end of the African slave trade.
And I sat as tears welled up and spilt over, soaking into my face mask. I couldn’t shake those six words that, for most, are probably the only earthly record remaining of their lives: “Many of the Chinese jumped overboard.” Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the furtive glances of one archivist, certainly equally parts confused about my emotional state and concerned that my tears might land on these priceless papers. I struggled to regain my composure, thinking about the hundreds of people who sooner sought what dignity they could in choosing a death at sea, far from home, than suffer under slavery and labouring on plantations in the Caribbean. It reminded me of the stories of the Middle Passage—of the horrific conditions that enslaved Africans faced upon their forced migration across the Atlantic. Many of them, too, sought solace in the sea.
At first I felt self-conscious and ashamed of my reaction. As professionals we are expected to train the emotion out of ourselves—especially us women—in order to be taken seriously. But then I realized there is strength in emotion, and the “ideal” of the unfeeling scholar is an affront to the humanity we so often claim to seek. Empathy is empowering, and I fervently encourage any reading this to embrace emotion, for it’s a universal tool that allows us to connect to other humans, past and present. After all, aren’t historians conduits between the living and the dead?
30 July 2021
This blog by JS Tennant is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.
Like Columbus I have torn through one reality and discovered another but like Columbus I thought Cuba was on the mainland and it was not and like Columbus also it is possible I am leaving a heritage of destruction.
– Malcolm Lowry, 1937
It might seem like a truism to restate the importance of Columbus’s so-called ‘discovery’ of the Americas. But recent theories around primacy - those jostling counter claims attributing first transatlantic landfall to Norsemen, Basque or Bristol cod-fishermen, or a Portuguese pilot - detract little from the hemispheric and historical significance of the Genoese navigator’s albeit unintended achievement.
Portugal was the pioneering nation of exploration in the late medieval period. Columbus had first sought sponsorship for his design from the kings of Portugal and England. He then spent seven long years petitioning Fernando and Isabel of Spain, trailing around after the regents’ itinerant court among their vast retinue of hand-wringing camp followers. Eventually, his doggedness won over the ‘Catholic Sovereigns’ whose union had brought together the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile and reached its apotheosis in the rout of Islam’s last stronghold on the peninsula at Granada.
Columbus failed to convince the regents during a debate with the country’s leading theologians and cosmographers at Salamanca in 1486, but a further audience near Granada in 1491 (under siege at the time) led Fernando and Isabel – buoyed no doubt by their imminent success – to grant his request. They urged him to set off quickly, in fact, perturbed by recent news that the Portuguese had succeeded in rounding the Cape of Good Hope; Spain needed to open a new, westward, maritime trade route into the lucrative spice markets of Asia.
Medieval European cartography can be generally categorised within three traditions: the mappaemundi, portolan charts and celestial maps. Mappaemundi were large, decorative circular maps of the known world, intended as much for spiritual instruction as locational accuracy. They were often beautifully illustrated with densely symbolic imagery, classical themes, placing Jerusalem at the nexus of all lands. Portolan charts, or sea charts, usually showed the Black Sea or Mediterranean and were deemed to be accurate, meant for active use by navigators. Although invented by the Phoenicians, these portable charts were perfected in late medieval times in the city states of Venice, Genoa, Florence as well as Ancona and Palma de Mallorca.
In the 1400s Europeans believed there were three continents, corresponding with those assigned to the sons of Noah: Asia, Europe and Africa. But both mappaemundi and portolan charts did signal the possibility of Terra incognita: most notably the existence of an Edenic terrestrial paradise, the Garden of Earthly Delights, whose existence was a given for orthodox Christians in the Middle Ages. The few sea charts which have come down to us showing a portion of the Atlantic – such as that of Grazioso Benincasa (1470) [Figure 1] – often position mythical islands such as Antilia, Brasil, Saint Brendan's Isle and Salvaga out at the edge of the mar tenebroso, the shadowy sea. An entirely new continent, though – let alone two – would have been beyond the wildest imaginings (even to the highly susceptible medieval mind).
Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmographia – a mid-second century work of theoretical geography and manual for map-making – proved a sensation in clerical and courtly circles in Western Europe when it was translated into Latin in 1406. A manuscript of the Alexandrian scholar’s treatise had been copied out in the late thirteenth century the Byzantine monk Maximus Planudes and was preserved in the Monastery of Vatopedi [Figure 2]. Although not printed until the 1470s, the Cosmographia was widely circulated before then and, although it overestimated degrees of longitude (elongating the distance between west and east), confirmed the tripartite nature of the world. Having languished practically unknown – except by Arab astronomers – for 1,300 years before the time of Columbus, the eventual rediscovery of Ptolemy as a geographer became one of the major intellectual events of the fifteenth century.
Like many learned men of his age, Columbus was steeped in the work of Ptolemy and colourful travelogues such as Marco Polo’s Il milione and Mandeville’s Travels. Lumbered with such preconceptions it is hardly a surprise that, when he stumbled upon the myriad cays, atolls and islands of the West Indies, he assumed this was the same archipelago off the eastern end of Orbis terrarum where the Great Khan – Emperor of China (or Cathay) – went to capture slaves. Although Ptolemy never fully mapped the outer rim of East Asia, he did describe a cluster of islands numbering 1,378 which must have recalled, for Columbus – who jotted this in the margins of his copy of Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago mundi – Polo’s 1,300 cities in Mangi (South China) and the 7,448 islands in the Sea of Mangi, verdant with fragrant trees and a profusion of white and black pepper.
Ptolemy’s conjectural coastlines, and Polo’s fanciful writings, were of little use to him in the Caribbean, which he named ‘the Indies’: at that time a term often assigning the whole of South and East Asia, a hazily imagined space so characterised by islands that its easternmost confine was often labelled Insulindia. Encountering Cuba on his first voyage, in 1492, Columbus publicly declared it to be the fabled Golden Chersonese (the present-day Malay Peninsula), stating later it was the littoral of mainland Cathay.
Displaying their own doubts, perhaps, ahead of his second voyage, the Spanish sovereigns urged Columbus to explore Cuba, ‘known up till now as a continent [tierra firme]’, once more. In June, 1494, dismissing claims to the contrary from native inhabitants ‘so ignorant and provincial they think the whole world is composed of islands’ he made his crew sign an oath affirming the continental nature of Cuba which, if reneged upon, would entail a cutting out of tongues. Privately, he conceded the possibility it could be an island, which he initially called Juana, only later updating this to ‘Cuba’: the name used by its local peoples (which in any case may have signified Florida).
At the turn of the century Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, an Italian humanist in the service of the Spanish court, had written of reports from men who claimed to have rounded the island. Given that he sailed under Columbus’s command on both the first and second voyages (as mate of the flagship Marigalante, which he also owned), and that first recorded circumnavigation of Cuba was by Sebastián de Ocampo in 1508, it is surprising that the Castilian cartographer Juan de la Cosa dared to depict Cuba as an island on his map of 1500. Beautifully executed on ox-hide [Figure 3], it also shows a putative channel cleaving the isthmus of Central America, through which wades a cartouche of St Christopher (who Columbus openly associated himself with) ferrying a cherubic Christ child on his shoulders. Was this to salve his admiral’s potential misgivings about the depiction of Cuba?
The beautiful Cantino planisphere of 1502 [Figure 4, below] is coloured and adorned like a mappamundi but studded by compass roses radiating rhumb lines and strongly accented coastlines in the portolan fashion. It shows a half-figured, spectral presence of the South and North American continents, but likewise a breach in Central America, hoping against hope for a seaward passage there towards Cathay and the Spice Islands. The Cantino planisphere also carries the prominent legend The King of Castile’s Antillies, named of course after Antilia, the island or (sometimes) archipelago of legend: the place – often associated with Cuba – some of Columbus’s many detractors felt he had really reached.
Columbus seems to have been afflicted with a sort of Insulindia of the senses, an archipelagic delirium derived from antiquity, the bible, and books of travel. Writing to the Pope in February, 1502, he claims that, among the hundreds of islands he discovered were Tarshish, Cethia, Ophaz, and Cipangu [Japan]; Ophir, the biblical region from where King Solomon received regular tributes of gold, ivory, peacocks and apes; as well as ‘vastly infinite lands’: it is ‘in that vicinity the Terrestrial Paradise is to be found’. Publicly, perhaps for fear of having duped the Catholic Sovereigns, Columbus maintained the unwavering conviction that he’d reached Asia – one professed, in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary, until the day he died in 1506.
The first printed map to show the ‘New World’ is the Contarini-Rosselli that same year, the only copy of which is held at the British Library [Figure 5, above]. Ptolemy, although writing in Greek, owed much of his knowledge to the expansion of the Roman empire; Columbus’s discovery of the Americas for Europe, and Portuguese advances across Asia, made it clear to cartographers that the old Jerusalem-centred manner of depiction no longer held. But such was the Alexandrine’s influence that, well into the sixteenth century, attempts were made to fit the Americas and Asia into a Ptolemaic framework, such as can be seen in the Contarini-Rosselli Map the Ruysch World Map of 1507 [Figure 6].
Confusion, sparked by Columbus’s equivocations over the nature of Cuba, are evidenced here in analysis which has shown that Ruysch painted over his original inscription Terra de Cuba, on the large island in its place, leaving it unnamed. The 1507 and 1516 Waldseemüller maps mislabel Cuba as ‘Isabella’, while the latter goes as far as to categorise an area of mainland Mexico as Terra de Cuba, Asie Partis. Similarly, the 1520 Schöner Globe marks Terra de Cuba on a landmass floating where North America should be, with Japan hovering tantalisingly nearby through an open sea channel [Figure 7]. In the end, Columbus’s characteristic intransigence had a devastating effect on the posterity and status he so craved. His false idea of Cuba contributed to the two continents being named instead for his friend, a Florentine also in the service of Spain: the explorer Américo Vespucio.
JS Tennant’s work Mrs Gargantua and the Idea of Cuba is forthcoming from William Collins. It was shortlisted for the 2020 Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award.
14 November 2019
As many readers will know, the British Library’s Buddhism exhibition has just opened to hugely positive reviews. More than 120 items are on display, ranging from sacred texts written on tree bark, palm leaves and gold plate to stunning silk scrolls, illuminated books, historical artifacts and ritual objects used in Buddhist practice today. The items span 2000 years of history and, not surprisingly, most of them are Asian in origin.
Yet, the history of Buddhism in the United States is also fascinating and multi-layered. On one hand it includes traditional narratives of migration and assimilation on the part of those who moved there first from China, and then later, Japan, Korea and other countries in East Asia. On the other, it is also intimately – and perhaps, uniquely – entwined with the counterculture and ‘alternative’ Americas; with Transcendentalism, the Beats and hippies.
One little known story involves Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s translation into English of passages of the Lotus Sutra; one of the most revered and important texts in Mahayana Buddhism. Published in the January 1844 issue of the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, it is possibly the first-ever translation into English of a Buddhist text.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this was not the first time that The Dial – founded in 1840 and subtitled ‘A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion’ – had published extracts from non-western writings. In July 1842, with Ralph Waldo Emerson at the helm, the journal had launched a column it later called ‘Ethnical Scriptures’. Jointly organised with Henry David Thoreau, the purpose of the column was to share ‘a series of selections from the oldest ethical and religious writings of men, exclusive of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.’ 1 In his announcement, Emerson fervently expresses his hope that the world's bibles will soon be collated, thereby bringing together ‘the grand expressions of the moral sentiment in different ages and races, the rules for the guidance of life, the bursts of piety and of abandonment to the Invisible and Eternal.’ 2
‘Ethnical Scriptures’ appears in The Dial nine times between July 1842 and April 1844 and includes selections from Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Egyptian sources. Unlike these other selections, however, the passages from the Lotus Sutra are not preceded by a commentary by Emerson or Thoreau. Instead, under the title ‘The Preaching of Buddha’, they begin with an extract from an article about the origins of Buddhism by the French scholar, Eugène Burnouf.
Burnouf, who is now regarded as the founder of Buddhist Studies, was at this time working on a translation of the Lotus Sutra from Sanskrit into French. To do so, he was using Nepalese manuscripts that had been sent to him by Brian Hodgson, a pioneer naturalist and ethnologist and an officer in the British East India Company. Burnouf's complete translation of the Lotus Sutra was published posthumously in 1852. However, in April and May 1843 he submitted two essays about Buddhism to La Revue Indépendante, a periodical edited in Paris by George Sand. Both essays included extracts from his translation, and it is these that provide the source material for ‘The Preaching of Buddha’.
Until quite recently, The Dial's translation of this material from French into English had been attributed to Thoreau. Now, however, it is widely credited to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.
Scarcely known today, Elizabeth Peabody was born into one of New England’s oldest families. Like her sisters, Sophia and Mary – who respectively married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann – she had a reading knowledge of multiple languages, including Greek which she learned as a teenager alongside Emerson. She was an early advocate of Transcendentalism and one of only two women in The Transcendental Club; the other being Margaret Fuller. She also pioneered the kindergarten movement in the United States and was one of the nation’s first female book printers.
In 1840, supported by a wealthy backer, Peabody founded the ‘E. P. Peabody Book Room and Foreign Library’ at the family home on West Street, in the South End of Boston.
The Book Room quickly became a rendezvous for the Transcendentalists. Many of Margaret Fuller’s ‘Conversations’ were held here, and it was from here that Palmer printed later issues of The Dial and fought to keep the magazine financially afloat. The Book Room was also the first store in the United States to handle French and German periodicals and the first to establish a circulating library of foreign books and periodicals. For $5 per annum, subscribers would receive access to more than 900 titles.
Both as a business woman importing periodicals such as George Sand’s Revue, and as talented linguist at the heart of the Transcendentalist community and Boston’s cultural elite, Elizabeth Peabody was perfectly placed to translate a Buddhist text into English, possibly for the very first time in the world. That she is now receiving credit for have done so, is a surely a cause for celebration.
(1) The Dial, July 1842, Vol 3., no. 1, p. 82.
25 August 2017
From 18th century to our days
Undoubtedly philosophers are in right, when they tell us that nothing is great or little otherwise than by comparison… .
As I continued my research on miniature books, I felt as Gulliver arriving at Brobdingnag, a little creature discovering a gigantic world, and assuming that the books world itself is a vice-versa dimension depending on how you look at it: what is a book but a tiny object in comparison to what it can actually contain?
In the first part of the journey, the leitmotif of the narration was to investigate the origins and meaning of the miniature books world, discovering that they were not only as old as their standard size counterpart, but were also responding to practical necessities.
Coming closer to our times, there has been a decisive peak in the production chart of Lilliputian books between the 18th and 19th century, when a profound love for small books is registered amid American and European publishers.
Some of the most prolific printers and publisher, for example, were Mein and Fleming in Boston, Isaiah Thomas in Worcester, Mass., Mahlon Day and Samuel Wood in New York, with a substantial counterpart in United Kingdom with Elizabeth Newbery and her successors and imitators in London, and in France with the Parisian J. B. Fournier. During this period, miniature books became increasingly popular in America, a historical moment also known as the “Golden Age” of minute print production , particularly thanks to a fruitful market demand of miniature chapbooks and almanacs . The invention of lithography, the industrial revolution, and the improvement of railways and postal services have played a decisive role in increasing the production and distribution of miniature books .
The same rise in circulation is ascribable to the many series editions of Children’s books. At the end of the 18th century, the editorial production for children was strongly fuelled by the theories of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who argued that the main aim of education was to develop the natural man, which promoted the study of natural science. Therefore a proliferation of miniature books dedicated to biology, astronomy, geography, ethnology, and political economy, is recorded in the last quarter of the century.
At the start of the 19th century, there is a marked decrease of publications following this didactic trend, with a move towards works influenced by the theories of Friedrich Fröbel, a German pedagogue who claimed that the education of tender minds also needs to contemplate imagination and daydream. As a result, fairy tales and fables were produced for young public in the miniature form .
An example of this latest educational trend is offered by two miniature chapbooks belonging to the American Collection. The first, Pretty Stories for Pretty Children is one of the fruits of the long life stationary store in Newark, New Jersey, of Benjamin Olds. Active from 1816 to 1865, Olds’ workshop published three series of the twelve-book set Cobb’s Toys (8, 10, 11), making the 1835 edition the first miniature series produced in New Jersey, followed by a successful second series .
The second sample, The Christmas Dream of Little Charles, is the product of the Kiggings and Kellog’s stationary, a very well established firm specialised in children’s books with two prolific printing presses active in New York from 1849 to 1866 at 88 John Street, and at 123 and 125 William Street .
In the early years of the 20th, century the interest in miniature books has continued, offering new available subjects for renewed demands. The Bible, the Child’s Bible and the Koran were generously printed by Americans and Europeans to be spread all around the world. However, the new trend was surely a mass distribution of travel books and dictionaries. For example the edition of thousands of tiny dictionaries, in all possible combinations of European languages, published by Schmidt and Gunther of Leipzig in the series Lilliput-Dictionaries, or their prolific Lilliput Bibliothek, proposing a complete reading of German classics such as Heine, Lessing, Goethe, Schiller and others. Both editions measure only 2 x 1 ¼ inches .
The mid-20th century continued on the track of the accurate production of proclamations, addresses, and presidential campaigns of the previous century. In this respect, particularly touching has been learning of the history of the Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation miniature edition. A million copies of the first complete book were produced with the intent to be distributed to Union soldiers and Southern slaves. Declaring freedom from slavery, it also invited “the free colored inhabitants of Louisiana” to join the Armed Forces against the Southern States .
Acclaimed as one of the most outstanding contributors and dedicated amateur, Achille J. St. Onge has been a prolific producer of this refined genre. Starting his career as publisher of sophisticated editions of the inaugural addresses of American Presidents, beginning with Thomas Jefferson in 1943, he has also dedicated beautiful editions to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II .
The American Collection holds a very prestigious St. Onge sample edition, and one of his last creations. The addresses of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, delivered at Westminster Hall and Guildhall on the occasion of Her Silver Jubilee 1952-1977 (Worcester, Mass.: Achile J. St. Onge, 1977).
As we get more close to our days, the small but significant collection I am working on within the North American Collections, has also offered the occasion to explore modern manufacturing processes of the minute prints. Starting from the 1870s, the definition of miniature artists’ books began to have wider recognition. The art of book crafting together with poetry and design masterfully flow into a miniature container .
The latest decades are definitely witnessing a revival of the ancient art of book craft. A brilliant example of the art of making books by hand is offered by two of the most important contemporary miniature book-artists . Peter and Donna Thomas met each other at an Elizabethan-themed market town in California where they were crafting books following the late Middle Ages typographical techniques, from handmade paper preparation to illustrations and bindings. Since the 1970s, the couple has documented the art of papermaking, and book crafting producing exquisite artist’s books containing fascinating historical topics .
Very few other private presses have accomplished to the challenge of putting together the whole process of book creation (writing the text, preparing the colour illustrations, hand cutting and setting the types, hand making the paper, letterpress printing, and binding), “none have published more books that the Thomases”, which described their first years of art working as a learning experience involving a lot of practice .
Annalisa Ricciardi is currently working as Cataloguer of the American Studies Collections. She is working on a heterogeneous collection of extraordinary interest and artistic value of American fine press and artists’ books, such as limited, numbered, and rare editions chronologically placed between 18th and 21st century.
 Gulliver’s Travels, illustrated by Rex Whistler (London: The Cresset Press, 1930), vol. I, p. 91 [Shelfmark: C.100.l.14.]
 Doris V. Welsh, The history of miniature books (Albany, New York: Fort Orange Press, 1987), pp. 41, and 41-45 [Shelfmark: 2708.e.1550].
 Robert C. Bradbury, Antique United States miniature books, 1690-1900 (No. Clarendon, Vermont, The Microbibliophile, 2001), pp. 3-7, and 7-14 [Shelfmark: YD.2005.a.4829]. For a complete reading, see by the same author also: Twentieth century United States miniature books (No. Clarendon, Vermont, The Microbibliophile, 2000) [Shelfmark: YD.2006.a2436], and Miniature Almanac, in Welsh, The history of miniature books, pp. 77-81; English Almanacs and calendars of the 18th and 19th centuries, and French, German, Austrian, and other European almanacs, in Louis W. Bondy, Miniature books: their history from the beginnings to the present day (London: Sheppard Press, 1981), pp. 39-47; 48-56 [Shelfmark: 2708.e.223].
 The 19th century, the supreme age of miniature books, in Bondy, Miniature books, pp. 57-58 [Shelfmark: 2708.e.223].
 Welsh, The history of miniature books, pp. 74.
 Bradbury, Antique United States miniature books, pp.123-124.
 Ibidem, pp. 159-161.
 Welsh, The history of miniature books, pp. 47, and Newsletter of the LXIVmos, no. 11 (October 15, 1928), pp. 3-4 [Shelfmark: P.P.6491.cae.].
 Presidents, politics, and propaganda, in Anne C. Bromer, Julian I. Edison, Miniature books: 4000 years of tiny treasures (New York: Abrams; New York: The Grolier Club, 2007), p. 156 [Shelfmark: LC.31.a.5071].
 The miniature books of today and tomorrow, in Bondy, Miniature books, pp. 169-171, and Presidents, politics, and propaganda, in Bromer and Edison, Miniature books, pp. 156-158.
 On the consolidation of the artist's books as an autonomous genre, see: Stefan Klima, Artists books: a critical survey of the literature (New York: Granary Book, 1997) [Shelfmark: YD.2015.a.1556].
 On the art of making miniature books, see: Peter and Donna Thomas, More making books by hand: exploring miniature books, alternative structures and found objects (Hove: Apple Press, 2004) [Shelfmark: LC.31.a.3315].
 The art of the book, in Bromer and Edison, Miniature books, pp. 42-43, 196-197; Twentieth century United States miniature books, pp. 302-308.
 Twentieth century United States miniature books, pp. 302-303.
09 August 2017
Since when and why
In a little time I felt something alive moving on my left leg, which advancing gently forward over my breast, came almost up to my chin; when, bending my eyes downwards as much as I could, I perceived it to be a human creature not six inches high, with a bow and arrow in his hands, and quiver at his back… .
I like to report on my first encounter with the miniature books world as a moment that was like waking up from my ordinary library day of submersion in beautiful American artists’ books, and discovering an exciting alternative reality made of miniature items. I perceived that these objects almost animated, approximately three or four inches tall, kindly throwing darts of curiosity at me with their bows loaded with charm. I immediately fell enamoured with them, and it did not take long before my desk was busy with library materials on miniature books.
“For those of us who have been bitten by this particular bug”  there is nothing left to follow the appeal of the beauty offered by the small miniature art masterpieces.
Wondering ‘why’, and ‘since when’ have been the guideline of my innocent journey into the history of the little items. One of the first things I learned is that as old as the discovering of the written world is its counterpart in the miniature form. Secondly, I acknowledged that this world is regulated by laws, and for that, you will define as miniature books only those which respect the standard of being possibly even less than three inches but no more than four, and almost as it was heresy, five.
Defecting from the established rules in fact, an item of four inches or little more would only be a pain for a purist, and a joke for all artisans involved, printers, binders, papermakers, illustrators, illuminators, and engravers who would give all the very best of their art under more challenging and extreme circumstances from one to three inches.
It is said that to reach the completion of the 1878 Dante’s Divina Commedia edition (Padua: Salmin), also known as the “Dantino”, many artisans were injured: the necessary operations of preparing and cutting the types caused a serious injury “to the eyesight of both the compositor and corrector. It took one month to print thirty pages, and new types were necessary for every new form.”. Around the 70’s of the 19th century, two brothers from Padua, Italy, together with a small team of professionals such as casters, compositors, and correctors, developed an unprecedented minuscule typefaces, which they named carattere a occhio di mosca (fly’s eye type), and that was firstly used for the micro Dante’s masterpiece. The measures of the book are 1 1/4” x 1 3/4”, and it is only readable trough a magnifying glass .
Indulging in more technical details, you would call a miniature book a 64mo. A single leaf of paper folded 64 times, originally printed with 64 pages on each side of it, and then scrupulously folded in order to bring up the correct sequence of the pages. The size of the pages are obviously determined by the size of the original master sheet, but a 64mo would inevitable be around 3 to 5 inches .
The purpose of creating, producing and collecting miniature books is two-fold: firstly, the practicality and secondly, personal pleasure, and the sense of beauty in small objects. Before Gutenberg, for matters European, miniature manuscripts were periodically produced completed with illuminations. Subsequently, the production of miniature books has continued to reflect the latest progresses of print machines and processes. There were miniature books printed in early Gothic and incunabula type characters, or in the earliest Greek types, Hebrew and so on. As in a shrinking mirror they were reflecting all new type acquisitions and binding progress .
Little books were simultaneously produced in the centuries alongside regular standard, so that men and women of faith could easily bring with them their collection of psalms and devotional books, students could carry their small library in a pocket, smugglers of ideas could easily hide tiny booklets in a secret bottom of their cape, merchants could quickly retrieve from their belt a tiny but complete guide on the equivalence of grains prices, scales, measures and conversion, and foreign currencies value meanwhile closing a deal, or that sharp businessmen could brilliantly define a legal contract.
It has been for that purpose that some of the earliest examples of books on miniature support were produced during the Babylonian Empire, as for the case of two small cuneiform tablets of Ancient Mesopotamia which preserve an antique writing system and concern trade and administrative issues. One of them, a clay tablet dated back to the 7th year of the reign of Bur-Sin, circa 2325 B.C., comes from the region of Ur, today Iraq, and measure only 1 5/8” x 1 1/2”. It contains extremely useful information while dealing with barley and bran for sheep (1), and the other, a Babylonian clay tablet from Senkereh, now Iraq, is dated 2200 B.C., and measure 1 7/8” x 1 1/4”, it was also used in the trading of animals and provisions (2).
Another beautiful miniature object is the world’s first printing on paper. A very tiny scroll 23/8” tall obtained from wood blocks, is dated back to 770 A. D. and is well known as the D’harani prayer. Only the story of its origins is as enchanting as the scroll itself. With the aim of spreading awareness on Buddhism, the Japanese Empress Shotoku, gave order to print a million copy of these prayer-scrolls encased in charming wooden pagodas, then asked they be distributed all over the country divided among ten Japanese temples, a project which required over six years of continuous work .
Annalisa Ricciardi is currently working as Cataloguer of the American Studies Collections. She is working on a heterogeneous collection of extraordinary interest and artistic value of American fine press and artists’ books, such as limited, numbered, and rare editions chronologically placed between 18th and 21st century.
 Gulliver’s travels, illustrated by Rex Whistler (London: The Cresset Press, 1930), vol. I, p. 18 [Shelfmark: C.100.I.14].
 Louis W. Bondy, Miniature books: their history from the beginnings to the present day (London: Sheppard Press, 1981), p. 3 [Shelfmark: 2708.e.223].
 Louis W. Bondy, Miniature books, pp. 93-95; and Anne C. Bromer, Julian I. Edison, Miniature books: 4000 years of tiny treasures, (New York: Abrams ; New York: The Grolier Club, 2007), pp. 47-49, 114 [Shelfmark: LC.31.a.5071].
 Doris V. Welsh, The history of miniature books (Albany, New York: Fort Orange Press, 1987), pp. 5-11 [Shelfmark: 2708.e.1550].
 Welsh, The history of miniature books, p. 2.
 Miniature books from the collection of Julian I. Edison (St. Louis, Missouri: Washington University), pp. 1-2 [Shelfmark: Cup.406.j.11]. See a rare example of the D’harani prayer as illustrate by the Library of Congress Asian Collection page: https://www.loc.gov/rr/asian/guide/guide-japanese.html