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Nineteenth-Century Smartphones?

Laura Forsberg

It is a truism, by this point, that smartphones have revolutionized our lives. In less than fifteen years, we have developed new ways of communicating with friends and family, navigating through traffic, finding information, and making purchases. Smartphones have become such an essential part of our lives that many of us feel anxiety when we’re away from them, not because we need them but simply because they make us feel connected and informed. The power of so small an object seems nothing short of magic.

But it is not entirely new.

Long before the smartphone hit the shelves of our local tech stores, miniature books possessed many of the same qualities. Like smartphones, miniature books were small in size, designed to fit in the palm of a hand or to slip in a pocket. And like smartphones, miniature books made claims to offer all the information a person could possibly need, claiming to be, as one volume put it, “a Lilliputian giant.”

Miniature books, in fact, illuminate our contemporary attachment to smartphones by showing how an object with evident physical limits appeals to us as a source of apparently limitless knowledge and power. The power of the smartphone—and the miniature book—isn’t despite its size but because of it. Consider the following three characteristics:

1. Size. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we often ascribe value to things according to their size. Things that are large seem more important simply because they occupy more space and demand more attention. But while small things can be easy to overlook, miniatures offer visions of endless space on an alternate scale. A drop of water may seem insignificant in size, but if we look at it through a microscope, as many in the nineteenth century did, it transforms into a space full of life and activity. The same principle extends to miniature books, measuring less than three inches in size (sometimes quite a bit less). A reduction in size, these books prove, expands the imagination.

During the nineteenth century, printers across Europe developed type for hand-set miniature books on an ever-decreasing scale. These volumes strained the eyes and proved the dexterity and commitment of the printer. The famous “occhio di mosca” (fly’s eye) type, developed in Italy in the 1830s, ruined the eyesight of compositors and editors who attempted to set the 2 point type by hand. (Standard type is now typically 12 point.) The brothers Salmin of Padua eventually succeeded in printing two volumes with the type, the first a portion of Dante’s Divina Commedia (1867) and the second a letter written by Galileo to the Grand Duchess Christina of Lorraine (1897). The latter contains Galileo’s defense of Copernicus’ theory of the earth’s rotation around the sun, in a volume half the size of a postage stamp. This choice of subject came not despite the size of the volume, but rather because of it; we may not reach into the heavens, but we can find infinity in the smallest spaces of our own world.

As this suggests, the size of smartphones is no coincidence; the small scale actually allows us to conceive of the small-scale object as containing infinity within its bounds.

2. Power. Part of the appeal of the smartphone comes from the sense of infinite power in our possession. Passionate dinner disputes become resolved by consulting our smartphones, just as empty time is filled with infinite scrolling apps. We often become frustrated if a search doesn’t yield the results we want (or if an app doesn’t work the way it should) in part because we assume that this object should be limitless in its power. Such is the promise of the miniature. 

As miniature books reveal, the feeling that we have infinite knowledge at our disposal is more powerful than any specific contents within. Most miniature books from the nineteenth century show few signs of use; while many almanacs are missing the covers and many miniature libraries have damaged covers, the interior pages are usually untouched. It’s not hard to see why. Miniature books are challenging to manipulate; it’s a strain to turn thin pages, to prevent comparatively oversized fingers from blocking the type, and to read the sometimes (though not always) diminutive print. Abbreviations and printing errors that cut off portions of the page further hinder reading. Put simply, these are books to be owned, not read.

Smartphones have, of course, resolved many of the useability concerns of miniature books, with the result that they are both more fantastic and more addictive than their nineteenth-century predecessors. But while I may feel the continual urge to check my texts, social media, or favorite news sites, the information I find there is rarely very important. The important—the magical—part lies in the feeling of power that comes with having (seemingly) infinite knowledge at my fingertips.

3. Reverence. We choose our smartphones partly based on technical specifications—their memory capacity, processing speed, and camera quality. But our choices are also guided by the elegance of the design and by the cultural cachet of possession. The iPhone, in particular, generates fervent loyalty, in part because of Apple’s attention to apparently minor elements like packaging design.

While twenty-first century technophiles embrace clean lines and immaculate design, the Victorians preferred ornate forms of decoration, in which arabesque covers, tortoiseshell cases, and minute magnifying glasses suggested the value of the contents inside. Victorian purchasers printed step-by-step accounts of unwrapping ¾ inch-tall volumes in a rapt language that recalls unboxing videos today. One recipient recounts first spying a small wooden box (which he suspects may contain a seal for letters), then finding a jeweler’s case (which he now believes contains a ring), next locating another small box with a ribbon (which puzzles him altogether), and finally extracting a book so small as to seem otherworldly.

The treatment of objects with a hushed reverence suggests a devotion that is almost religious. Most miniature books prior to the nineteenth century (and many during the period) were miniature Bibles or prayerbooks, in which the small size of the volume paradoxically summoned a sense of awe at the vastness of God. Abridged versions of the Bible were understood to contain “all in all,” concentrating God’s power into a form that fits in the pocket. The size and intricacy of secular miniature books elicit a similarly reverent reaction.

As we wonder over the size and power of our smartphones and as we await the unveiling of new features, it’s worth considering how they have given new life to old obsessions. These small objects, like the miniature books that preceded them, suggest infinity, promise power, and inspire reverence. They represent a little bit of miniature magic.

Laura Forsberg is assistant professor of English at Rockhurst University. She was previously an NEH fellow at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens. Her articles have appeared in Victorian StudiesSEL: Studies in English Literature 1600–1900, and other journals.

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