Mighty realm of miniature books
Collections are prized for their varied genres, designs, formats
Her first miniature book was about an inch and a half tall. It was a prayer book bound in ivory with a velveteen spine and satin endpapers. Caroline Brandt puts the year of publication at around 1850. The manuscript came as a sort of bonus that a toy store owner sneaked in along with a first Holy Communion outfit her parents bought for her Shirley Temple doll back when she was 6 or 7.
Brandt is pretty sure that’s where her collection began, back in the 1930s while she and her parents were living in France. Now, many decades later, she lives in Virginia and has a catalog of about 18,000 miniature books.
“I don’t think there’s a subject you can mention that I don’t have a miniature book in,” Brandt says. A comprehensive list of the subjects included in her collection runs four pages long.
Brandt is, in the parlance of the Miniature Book Society, a “miniature book enthusiast.” She’s one of about 300 members of the society, and one of 66 who will be making their way to Oakland for the
annual Miniature Book Society Conclave, a traveling conference that begins Friday, Aug. 11, and lasts the weekend. Brandt’s never missed one. In fact she’s the only member who has been at every single conclave since they began 35 years ago.
“They’re such fun,” she says, “because we’ve all gotten to be such good friends.”
The conferences, as described by Brandt and this year’s hosts, Dorothy Yule and Susan Hunt Yule (identical twin sisters who sometimes wear matching outfits, or what Susan likes to call “twin drag”), are almost what one might expect: group dinners and tours of rare-book collections; two auctions, one silent and one live; a book fair; and a contest for bookmakers.
But some events might be hard to imagine if this small world weren’t one with which you were deeply familiar. For instance, on Friday, conference attendees are invited to join in one workshop in which “tiny pressed plants from around the Bay Area may be sketched, stenciled, stamped, and saved in this modular accordion book designed by the instructor.” On Saturday, Judith Serebrin will walk the group through the process of stitching together a 2-by-2¾-inch book with optional sewing on the cover and a calligraphy illustration on the frontispiece.
“It’s a fairly simple structure,” Serebrin says. But the sewing is a bit tricky, so she’s done some preparation in advance.
The sort of person who attends the conclave isn’t easily described or pigeonholed, according to Dorothy Yule. Though, she says, “mostly we have gray hair.” There are, of course, many collectors who attend. But there are also publishers, writers, illustrators, book artists and “just plain old people who got interested in miniature books,” Brandt says. “Can you say what kind of people collect stamps? I can’t tell you.”
Yule, a former art director of The Chronicle, falls mostly into the “book artist” category, though she also writes them. She particularly likes to create miniature pop-ups. She and her sister have turned out miniature books about their travels, about the “ABCs” of miniature books and about Bay Area bridges. The last one they’ve actually created for the conclave. The book comes encased in a emptiedout walnut shell and is titled “Bay Area Bridges in a Nutshell.”
Miniature books, it should be noted, are not novelty items. “These are real books and contain real information and are not just ‘cute.’ You know, ‘cute’ is an anathema word to vintage book collectors,” Brandt says. In the United States, the cutoff for a miniature is anything smaller than 3 inches. Some can be considerably smaller, able to fit on a thumb. And yet often they still can be read with the naked eye, “like you could the tag on a lady’s dress or a man’s shirt.”
The books can come leather-bound and gilt-edged. Some are letterpressed. Some collectors have manuscripts that were created before the printing press was invented. They are works of art and compendiums of knowledge, the way any book might be; they’re just a bit (or a lot) smaller.
Dorothy Yule has done some reading into why it happens that people develop a fondness for miniature books and small things in general. Often, the theories say, it comes down to scale and a sense of control.
Whether that’s right, Yule’s not sure. “I like the intimacy,” she says. “Especially when you do pop-ups and you hold them in your hands, it’s like a magic trick. The page comes forth.”
Top, “Hediday: A Portable Holiday to Celebrate the Work of Hedi Kyle,” by Dorothy A. Yule. Below, “Bay Bridges in a Nutshell,” by Dorothy A. Yule and Susan Hunt Yule.
Author Susan Hunt Yule (left) and book artist Dorothy Yule are twins and co-hosts of the upcoming Miniature Book Conclave in Oakland.
“Bijou Pictures of Paris” was published in 1850, a testament to the early days of miniature books.
“The Twins’ Travels” is a miniature book by Dorothy A. Yule, illustrated by Susan Hunt Yule.