Miniature Numismatic Books

By Matthew Wittman

According to the Miniature Book Society, only volumes no larger than three inches in height, width, or thickness may properly be classified as miniature books. The small clay tablets used in ancient Mesopotamia are but one example of the long history of writing and recording information on small objects. The usual starting point in this vein for printing history are the Muku Jo-ko Sutra, which were tiny scrolls of magical Buddhist incantations that were printed using wooden blocks and then enshrined in miniature pagodas as an act of penance by the Empress Shotoku (765-770 CE). In medieval Europe, miniature manuscripts in the form of codex books, usually of a religious nature, were common, but it was not until the advent of the printing press in the 15th century that miniature books proper appeared. The Lilly Library at the University of Indiana has a wonderfully informative online exhibition that traces the varied history of miniature books, but our concern here is of course with the numismatic dimensions of this corpus.

The Harry W. Bass Jr. Library at the American Numismatic Society has a dozen or so volumes that qualify as a miniature books. The smallest by far is by the Japanese artisan bookmaker Asao Hoshino. Measuring less than an inch square, Old Coins of the World (1977) has a black leather cover with gilt lettering and edging.


Only 250 books were produced and you can see the number 188 embossed on the cover of the ANS copy. The bulk of the 192-page volume consists of small black and white illustrations of historical coins with captions in Japanese and English.

For reasons that are unclear to me, miniature books seem to have been particularly popular in Hungary. Two small hardbound volumes with well-struck silver plaquettes on their covers are the highlight of these Hungarian titles.

These little books were printed in 1984-85 to mark the 250th anniversary of the mining officers’ training school at Selmecbánya, and chronicle its history using medals and plaquettes associated with the school. Perhaps the most useful of the modern miniatures in terms of actual content is Történelmünk penzeken by István Gedai, which was published in Budapest in 1975 and details the numismatic collection at the Hungarian National Museum.

Most of the modern American miniatures are cheaply produced novelties, but the Hillside Press of Tilton, New Hampshire, published some wonderfully-made miniature books in the 1960s and 1970s. The diminutive Colonial Coins (1974) was printed in 6 point Bulmer Roman type that was set by hand. The text by F. E. Irwin gives a very brief history of the coinage of British North America and is illustrated with well-cut engravings throughout.

For those of an antiquarian bent, the library unfortunately does not hold any older titles that qualify as miniatures, though there are a few books that do not miss by much. A quatro 1584 edition of one of the earliest and most famous numismatic books, Emblemata, et aliqvot nvmmi antiqvi operis by Johannes Sambucus, is slightly smaller than a 3″ x 5″ notecard.


It also contains some fabulous woodcuts, including one of the earliest representations of the sport of tennis. A poem alongside the illustration is addressed ‘Ad pilulam’ (‘To the tennis ball’), and characterizes it as something that young men waste their time chasing around.


Another notable title is Introductio ad historiam numismatum (1683). It was written by Charles Patin (1633-1693), a French physician and keen numismatist who was arrested in 1666 for smuggling books prohibited by the Catholic Church into Paris. Choosing exile over living out his life on a prison galley, he traveled throughout Europe, visiting coin cabinets and making a number of significant scholarly acquaintances. Patin eventual settled in Padua and published several important numismatic studies. The spine on this particular volume measures a little over five inches, and it is actually a Latin translation of the original study first printed in French in 1665.

So ends our short survey of small books, and I would remiss not to acknowledge the generosity of the late Richard B. Witschonke, who collected and donated many of these volumes to the ANS.

Matthew Wittmann