If it’s Almost Microscopic, is it a (Real) Book? “Le Bijou des enfans pour l’année 1817”

Can you judge a book by its cover? Cover of: Bijou des enfans pour l’année 1817 (Paris: [1816?]) at 28 mm tall (Cotsen 46176)

You can’t judge a books by its cover, the old saying goes. That’s true enough, for the most part. The body of the binding isn’t necessarily a window onto the soul of the printed text within.  The early quarto publications of Shakespeare’s plays were offered for sale in unbound sheets, or sometimes in plain paper wrappers when first published. The simple green wrappers of the first edition of James’ Joyce’s Ulysses (with just author and title simply printed on the upper wrapper) provide no hint of the revolutionary narrative lurking inside. The unimpressive, and well-handled, covers of George Bickham’s 1750 Pretty-Book give no sign that the book is now a unique surviving copy. (You can’t get much more “rare” than that!).

There are some exceptions to this truism, of course.  Some book covers do signal the content inside: children’s books with bright (loud?) chromolithographed wrappers or covers, artists’ books with complex cover designs or engineered paper, or medieval “treasure bindings,” such as the gold, silver, and gem-encrusted “Magnificent Gems” on exhibit recently at the Morgan Library & Museum.

Bespoke morocco bindings of the book? Or is it “just” the box?

The idea of judging a book by its cover — and being surprised by it — was certainly brought home to me recently while working with the Cotsen Library’s copy of Le bijou des enfans pour l’anée 1817 (Paris: Chez Janet, [1816?]).  The cover, or so I thought, at first looked like a nice, bespoke maroon morocco binding for a nineteenth-century book, apparently in a protective sleeve.  Take a look for yourself!  But then as I (gently) pulled the “book” out, I realized it wasn’t really the cover of a book at all, but rather part of a protective box of some kind.  The plot thickened…

Opening up the clamshell box, a real surprise awaited me.  Inside was a tiny book — one of the smallest I’ve ever seen (at 28 mm., barely more than 1 inch)– and also a magnifying glass, an artifactual magnifying glass,to boot, which appeared to be roughly contemporary with the book, which is bound in crimson roan — probably a publisher’s binding (and definitely cheaper than the later bespoke morocco binding of the case).  I felt a little like Alice, after swallowing the “drink me” shrinking potion in Wonderland.  Where would this end?  Curiousier and curiousier, for certain.

A glimpse inside the box… Extreme miniature book, magnifying glass, bookplate, and hand-painted paper…

The tiny book and magnifier both lay within perfectly-fitted, red velvet-lined cut-out indentations inside the box.  (Note the gilt turn-ins around the box’s inner edges too.)  The box was lined with quite beautiful, hand-painted, floral-patterned paper — quite a work of art in itself. And then there was the hand-colored, engraved pictorial bookplate, depicting a seated young tutor and his charge, who seems more interested in his drum and hobby-horse than whatever might be inside the book that his tutor is holding!

Kurt Szafranski’s bookplate, depicting tutor and less-than-diligent pupil…

The bookplate belonged to Kurt Szafranski, an early twentieth-century book collector of some note, whose collection was purchased en bloc from his daughter in the late 1990s.  The German text on the bookplate — “aus der kinderbuch sammlung von” — translates as “from the children’s book collection of” Szafranski.

But what about the tiny book itself? OK, I’m getting to that now…  It’s a little hard to know where to start with this mini marvel, as I hope you can appreciate!  This is where the magnifier came into play — perhaps it was sold with the book? — and eventually, a more powerful, new-fangled one, better suited to tired eyes.

The book’s title page provides just the basic bibliographic facts, ma’am.

The Bijou’s title page “under glass”… No books were harmed in the making of this photo!

Pour les demoiselles…

Pour les garçons…

Title (including date), imprint, and address of Pierre-Étienne Janet, the book’s issuer, a Paris bookseller active from about 1791 to 1830. No illustration, publisher’s ornament or device, nor engraved frontispiece on the facing page. The date is part of the title, though, not the date of publication, and we’ve dated this book as [1816?], since almanacs were typically issued late the year before, just in time for Christmas or holiday giving (much like gilt-stamped leather pocket date-books were in the olden times before Palms, PDAs, and cell-phones rendered these.leather-and-paper objects somewhat obsolete to many).

These little almanacs tended to follow a similar general format in their contents: a monthly calendar noting holidays, religious events, and other dates of note, poetry, some sorts of mottoes, quotations, or sayings to inspire thought, and illustrations (often nicely executed).

Cotsen’s Bijou des enfans indeed follows that model, beginning with emblem-like illustrations facing little poems, followed by short rhyming couplets about love and romance for both boys garçons and young ladies (“devises pour les garçons” / “devises pour les demoiselles), a table of these “devises”, and the calendar pages.

December pages from the calendar section of Le bijou

According to the Grolier Club’s Miniature Books (the wonderful catalog accompanying their 2007 miniature book exhibition), these “bijou” (jewel) almanacs were especially popular in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the small “almanachs minuscules” (tiny almanacs) being especially popular among fashionable young ladies during the 1740-1850 period, when they were issued in two different sizes: a “larger” size of up to 3 1/4 inches tall (80 mm.), and a smaller size of “less than an inch” in height, numbering sixty-four pages in length, “entirely engraved from metal plates,” and featuring illustrated love songs or poems; Cotsen’s Bijou des enfans seems to fit the latter description to a “T”.  The Grolier’s Miniature Books catalog adds that these smaller leather-bound almanacs were “given out at the New Year to favored patrons of Parisian chocolate shops”!  I wonder if these special bijoux publications came with tiny sweets too?  That’s certainly a notion that would have appealed to children!

Hey buddy, Can you spare a dime? The cover of the Bijou (at 28 mm), with FDR included for scale

At less than an inch in height, the tiny size of these smaller almanachs minuscules places them at distinctly the smaller end of the spectrum of miniature books, which are technically 100 mm in size or smaller (i.e. less than 4 inches inches).  Compare the size of Cotsen’s 28 mm copy of the Bijou des enfans to the dime in the photograph and imagine just how small that really is. By way of comparison, Cotsen’s copies of the individual volumes in John Marshall’s Doll’s Library, a miniature library set (dated [1800?]), are 50 mm tall; Francis Newbery’s 1772 Pocket Bible for Little Masters and Misses is 84 mm tall; and each of the five volumes in Marshall’s miniature library set, A Concise Abridgement of Natural History … for the Juvenile, or, Child’s Library, are 98 mm tall.

Imagine handling, reading, and simply turning the pages a much tinier 28 mm book — it takes some dexterity.  And while children have smaller hands than grown-ups and are also more dexterous with tiny objects, think of how roughly they can handle books and toys, even in the case of older children, at whom the Bijou des enfans seems to be aimed.  One can readily imagine lost pages, torn up books, or books lost altogether.  Perhaps that’s why Cotsen’s copy is one of only a very small handful of copies of a Bijou des enfans from the years 1816 or 1817 that seemed to turn up on (admittedly very) quick searches of OCLC and the French Bibliothèque nationale.  Almost microscopic and rare!

The Bijou des enfans (box) on the shelf (third from left) with some of its mates… The next time you see a book on the shelf, as yourself: “Can you really judge a book by its cover?”


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