MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

MIT's Smallest Books

One of MIT's Smallest Books, with key

The smallest volumes ordinarily published for the American book trade are in the "thirtysixmo" format, approximately 4" x 3 1/3". Miniature books (smaller than 4" x 3") have been printed and bound by various means over the years as novelties for collectors. Napoleon had a traveling library of miniature books. The Queen Mother of England owns a dollhouse, the bookshelves of which are stocked with miniature publications. The smallest books at MIT, in the Vail Collection at the Institute Archives and Special Collections, are part of a series of presidential miniatures published by the Training Division of the Kingsport Press of Kingsport, Tennessee, as student exercises in 1929 and 1930. They are only 13/16" high and 9/16" wide.

The first presidential miniature produced by the Kingsport students (1929) was The Addresses of Abraham Lincoln, which contains four complete speeches in 160 pages, with approximately fifty words per page in ten lines of two-point type. The 1930 graduates apparently tried to upstage those of the preceding year by issuing Extracts from the Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge in even smaller typeface, about sixty words per page in twelve lines. Although experiments in striking and casting two-point type had been successfully accomplished in the nineteenth century, the Kingsport students first set larger type and then photographically reduced the printed sheets for smaller printing by an offset process. The smallest type ever cast and set for printing was probably the "Fly's Eye" or "occhio di mosca" type created by the Salmi brothers in Padua for an edition of Dante's Divine Comedy (1878). The painstaking work is said to have damaged the eyesight of both the compositor and the corrector.

The books are kept in a specially made case equipped with ribbons to help lift them out.

Small books in their case

The Lincoln and Coolidge books were bound in leather, with gold tooling, using stitched signatures. The principal bibliographic authority on miniature books, Louis W. Bondy, calls the Kingsport presidential volumes "marvels of superior miniature book production." As members of the Class of 1929 explain in the introduction to The Addresses of Abraham Lincoln, they chose the sixteenth U.S. president for their project because "no author using the English language has ever excelled Lincoln in putting a large amount of human feeling within the compass of a few words." The author of the second volume in the series was also a man of few words, the thirtieth president, known as "Silent Cal."

Major collections of miniature books can be found at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Grolier Club in New York, the British Library in London, and the Bodleian Library at Oxford. MIT's miniatures were the gift of Theodore N. Vail, a former president of American Telephone and Telegraph Co. and a member of the MIT Corporation from 1913 to 1920. The books are available for inspection in the MIT Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118. (A magnifying glass will be provided.)

Object of the Month: February-March 2001

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