Thursday, January 13, 2011

Miniature books offer a glimpse of history

Miniature Olympic Oath book is printed in five languages. It comes in a Plexiglas case with built-in magnifier.
With the rise of Hitler and Nazism in the late 1930s, many Jewish professionals began to leave Germany. Among them was Walter Schatzki, a young antiquarian bookseller who settled in New York City in 1937.

The antiquarian book trade in the United States was, at that time, quite different from the well-established, organized field that existed in Europe. That was about to change, with the help of emigré booksellers fleeing the tyranny of anti-Semitic Arians.

Within a dozen or so years, there were sufficient numbers of antiquarian booksellers in the country to form the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. Schatzki was on the original board of governors for ABAA.

Schatzki became an authority on rare children's book and, indeed, assembled one of the most famous catalogs of children's books ever created by an American bookseller. Schatzki also was interested in miniature books, a phenomenon that had been around almost since the beginning of books but enjoyed a sort or resurgence in the 1960s.

It's unclear whether Schatzki commissioned the production of a series of four miniatures that included The Lord's Prayer, Lincoln's Freedom Oath, Serments d'Amour (Oaths of Love) and the Olympic Oath. In 1966, he told Julian Edison, editor of Miniature Book News, that he was the distributor of the tiny books that had been published by Waldmann & Pfitzner in Munich. He is often credited with being the publisher, though.

A copy of the Olympic Oath book is in the collection at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. The micro-miniature books measures 3/16-inch by 1/8-inch. It is bound in navy blue leather with the Olympic rings stamped on the front cover. The text of the oath is printed in five languages. It comes in a Plexiglass case with a swivel magnifier. The books originally sold for $3.75 each or the set of four in a mother-of-pearl-like cassette for $17.50.

The first miniature book was probably a prayer scroll commissioned by the Japanese Empress Shotoku in 770 A.D. It was printed on a scroll 2-3/8 inches wide from wooden blocks and distributed throughout the country to help the spread of Buddhism.

Miniatures were popular among the educated classes in the Middle Ages before Gutenberg created moveable type. These were colorful illuminated manuscripts. One of the earliest miniature books printed after Gutenberg's bible was the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which contained prayers and songs. It was printed in 1475.

Perhaps one of the most popular small books was known as the English Thumb Bible. Though the tiny books were published as early as 1614, they acquired the Thumb appellation apparently as reference to General Tom Thumb, the English dwarf made famous by P.T. Barnum.

It's not clear whether Walter Schatzki was fascinated with miniatures as an avocation or merely as a business proposition but two of the most well-known miniature enthusiasts in the country – Julian Edison and Ruth Adomeit – met in Schatzki's bookshop on 57th Street in New York.

Adomeit was editor of The Miniature Book Collector, a series of informative booklets, for a few years. She left her considerable miniature book collection to the Lilly Library at Indiana University.

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