Among the rarest of the many miniature titles published by David Bryce & Son in Glasgow is Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard (1911). This copy, with many of the 96 pages unopened, is offered at £1200 by Camden Lock Books.

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Always keen on a bizarre fact, the first century author Pliny marvelled at a minute parchment copy of Homer’s Iliad he had learned about through the writings of Cicero. It was, he said, so small it could fit in a nutshell.

From the beginning, miniatures served several practical functions. They were useful for carrying on travels, for concealing taboo content or for wearing close to the body as amulets.

By the end of the medieval period, it had become fashionable for aristocratic women to wear miniature devotional texts in jewelled and enamelled bindings around the next or the waist. Style, status, literacy and piety were simultaneously on display.

Printing skills

With the invention of letterpress printing, the medium came into its own. Printed pocket-sized books arrived within the lifetime of Johannes Gutenberg himself (his assistant Peter Schoffer the Younger printed Diurnale Moguntinum in 1468) and were among the stock in trade of Aldus Manutius at the Aldine Press in Venice.

“Because they invite attention to every minute detail - the fineness of the paper, the clarity of the engravings, the size of the type and the artistic bindings - printers have accepted the challenge to create these intimate volumes,” says Anne Bromer of Bromer Booksellers in Boston.

Co-author of Miniature Books: 4000 Years of Tiny Treasures, she has issued numerous catalogues on the subject and bought and sold the collections of several leading US collectors.

Bromer believes ‘toy’ books were made by apprentices, the theory being “that if you can print and bind a miniature book well, you will better succeed in printing full-sized volumes”.

Certainly, in a competitive market, they became a vehicle to demonstrate skills and new technologies - an attention-grabbing way to show off the latest in printing, typography and binding technique. Each miniature book casts a little light on the history of the book trade.

The late 18th and the 19th century were the heyday of the fun-size volume.

Under the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau, children’s literature prospered far beyond miniature abridgements of the Bible while exercises in miniaturisation brought near perfect micro versions of the classics, akin to those Pliny mentioned in his Naturalis Historia, into being.

They include the famous ‘fly’s eye Dante’ printed by the Salmin Brothers in Padua in 1878. The smallest version of Dante’s Divina Commedia in the world, it took 11 years to print and damaged the eyes of its compositor and corrector. A good copy might today retail close to £10,000.

Other miniatures had a higher purpose.

Dr Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy; or, the Private Companion of Young Married People (New York, 1832) gave the first professional advice on contraception - it was printed in a 3 by 2½in format so it could be easily concealed - while 500,000 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation were printed in an eight-page 3in booklet by abolitionist John Murray Forbes of Boston.


The Emancipation Proclamation was printed in an eight-page miniature book form by abolitionist John Murray Forbes of Boston in December 1862. Many were given to Union soldiers.

Image: With kind permission from Jim E Arsenault & Company

They were produced in December 1862 for Union soldiers to read and distribute among African Americans as they ventured south. Today, vanishingly few survive. One sold for $5800 at auction in November 2015.

The Scottish printer David Bryce (1845-1923) said that when he “descended to the miniature, mite and midget size” he had “many a scoff and jeer as to the absurdity of the production”.

However, over 40 miniature titles created by photolithography (the process of using electro plates to miniaturise type and images) made him a rich man.

His Authorized Version of the Bible (first printed in 1896) and a miniature Quran in Arabic (from 1900) were sufficiently small to be worn about the person. Both were welcomed by soldiers fighting with the Allies during the First World War.

Serious miniature book collecting is thought to begin with Eugénie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III. The empress had a collection of more than 2000 volumes.

The blue-blood fascination was continued by Queen Mary. Her doll’s house includes a library of nearly 600 books handwritten by a rollcall of early 20th century authors and bound by Sangorski & Sutcliffe. To mark its centenary, a new history titled The Miniature Library of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House is published this year.

Size matters

Precisely what constitutes a miniature book was then somewhat arbitrary. It was simply enough that the book was much smaller than its exemplar.

Today in the UK books measuring under 4in (10cm) are generally considered miniature. But for purists at the Miniature Book Society in the US the current policy is to limit the height of most miniatures to books less than 3in (7.5cm).

Twenty-first century collecting is truly international and internet commerce suits it well. Whether three or four inches, books can be photographed in high resolution, described with reference to the standard bibliographies and packed, posted and delivered with ease.


This late 19th or early 20th century copy of The Koran, measuring just 27mm high in its original red and gilt paper wrappers, was supplied in a decorative metal case with a small magnifying glass set to the cover. It sold for £440 at Forum Auctions in March 2022.

Generally, most rare book dealers will have some knowledge of miniature books, but some have made it a (tiny) niche of their own.

Jason Burley of Camden Lock Books, who began his career as a trainee bookseller with Francis Edwards in 1979, switched his focus to miniature books on purely practical grounds: severe back pain. His gradual ‘downsizing’ coincided with spinal fusion surgery and the retirement of miniature book specialist Michael Garbett. The two men had shared adjacent stands at the monthly PBFA London Book Fair at the Russell Hotel.

Burley has only recently joined the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (in 2023) and will make his debut at Firsts: London’s Rare Book Fair this year.

He will bring items from a recent catalogue of some 200 miniature printed books with a maximum dimension of 4in (10cm). That represents about a fifth of his current stock. Prices range from £50 to £11,000 for a set of 16 volumes from John Marshall’s Infant’s Library c.1800 housed in their original paper-lined sycamore ‘bookcase’ with sliding lid. This set was owned by Sydney Roscoe who wrote the first article on John Marshall’s children’s books in 1955.


John Marshall’s Infant’s Library c.1800 priced at £11,000 by Camden Lock Books comes with 16 volumes and the original sycamore ‘bookcase’ with sliding lid.

Asked what book he would most like to have in stock, he replies quickly: “It would have to be one of the miniatures by Charlotte Brontë. The last one known to survive in private hands was sold for $1.25m in 2022 by Maggs Brothers and James Cummins. It is now in the Brontë Parsonage Museum.”

Miniatures can appear to occupy the outer edges of book collecting. However, the guidelines to beginning a collection of miniature books are the same as buying antiquarian books in any genre.


This recently rediscovered miniature manuscript by Charlotte Brontë (1816-55), titled A Book of Ryhmes by Charlotte Brontë, Sold by Nobody, and Printed by Herself, was purchased for the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Yorkshire. Priced at $1.25m, it was offered by James Cummins Bookseller in conjunction with London dealer Maggs Brothers on behalf of a private owner at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2022. A Book of Ryhmes, a 15-page manuscript smaller than a playing card, is a collection of 10 poems written by Brontë at the age of 13, stitched in its original brown paper covers and dated December 1829. Written in minute characters in imitation of print, the tiny hand-sewn book is one of a series of ‘magazines’ created by siblings Charlotte and Branwell Brontë from January 1829 to August 1830.

“Our mantra of 50 years in the world of rare books is to buy what we like and to purchase the best copies the pocketbook can afford,” says Anne Bromer.

“Seeing and holding real books will ensure these basic concepts; virtual reality cannot substitute for the satisfaction of turning the pages of an actual book and touching its paper, type, and binding.”

And, of course, it’s best to start small.