Untold lives blog

13 December 2021

Miniature books for children

Among the books on loan from the British Library to an exhibition of Miniature Books at Newcastle City Library (until 13 March 2022) are Curiosities in the Tower of London (1741) and two small volumes from The Infant's Library (ca. 1800). These little books can be seen alongside The Jan Pienkowski Fairy Library (1977) and a tiny giveaway edition of The Borrowers (ca. 1980) from the Seven Stories Collection housed in Newcastle City Library. They were all designed to be easily held in little hands for the delight and amusement of young children. These historical books made for children are on display together with miniature books made by primary school children in Newcastle and across the UK in 2020 and 2021.

Photograph of the Miniature Books exhibition at Newcastle City LibraryThe Miniature Books exhibition at Newcastle City Library.

Curiosities in the Tower of London was one of 10 miniature titles produced by Thomas Boreman between 1740 and 1743, at a price of 4 pennies each. Boreman wanted his books to ‘join instruction with delight’ and so he focussed on entertaining children.

Curiosities in the Tower of London was published in two volumes, the first volume contains a description of the Royal menagerie at the Tower. Lively accounts of the wild animals – the lionesses Jenny and Phillis, the lion Marco with his ‘frightful teeth’, and the porcupine, ‘one of the strangest animals in the world’ – and the charming woodcut illustrations all made these little books very attractive to their child readers.

Image of a porcupine in Curiosities in the Tower of London published by Thomas Boreman in 1741Curiosities in the Tower of London.  2nd ed. London: Thomas Boreman, 1741. 2 vols. BL shelfmark Ch.740/7. The volume measures 60 x 65 mm.

A list of young subscribers is included. However as the cost of the book (4d.) would have represented around one third of a labourer’s daily wage, these children were probably from much more affluent families.

List of subscribers in Curiosities in the Tower of LondonList of subscribers in Curiosities in the Tower of London.

Boreman’s books were unlike other 18th century publications for young children that sought to improve their moral conduct through stories that carried a stern and overtly moral and religious message. Instead Boreman wished to improve his young readers’ minds by inspiring them with a sense of wonder and amusement. This unusual approach marked a turning point in the history of children’s literature.

John Marshall, printer and bookseller, issued 17 small volumes in The Infant’s Library at the end of the 18th century. These little books were intended to be educational, and the collection includes a picture alphabet, a short history of England and a description of scenes of everyday life. However Marshall advertised them as both ‘for the instruction and amusement of young people’. Like his other libraries for children that include The Doll’s Library and The Book-Case of Instruction and Delight, The Infant’s Library offered a practical system of learning through play.

Books 9 and 13 give us a particularly charming glimpse into some popular games for boys and girls. Each double page opening shows a few lines of clearly printed, simple text accompanied by a hand-coloured woodcut illustration of children at play.

Boys' Games in The Infant's Library with image of boys playing Battledore and ShuttlecockThe Infant’s Library. London: John Marshall, ca. 1800. Book 9: Boys’ games. BL shelfmark C.194.a.945. Each volume measures 57 x 47 mm. 

It is interesting to see that while Marshall wanted children to use his books as amusing playthings, his text is not without a corrective moral tone. Girls’ games carries a firm warning about playing on the swing as 'this is a very dangerous play and very improper for young ladies'.

Girls' Games in The Infant's Library with image of a girl on a swingThe Infant’s Library. Book 13: Girls’ games. BL shelfmark C.194.a.945

Helen Peden
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further images from these volumes can be found on the Discovering Children’s Books website:

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/curiosities-in-the-tower-of-london

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-infants-library

Miniature Books – an exhibition of items from the collections of the British Library and Seven Stories is open at Newcastle City Library until Sunday 13th March, 2022. 

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