What’s the smallest book you can think of? Who would you read it with? These books measure 57mm high and 47mm wide – around the same length as a mouse’s tail! They were part of The Infant’s Library created by John Marshall more than 200 years ago.
Why are The Infant’s Library books so small?
Marshall had the brilliant idea of helping children to learn by reading these books to their dolls. The series starts with the alphabet and ends with books about animals, flowers, birds, games, outdoor scenes, objects and a (very!) Short History of England. In places, you might spot words printed with the old-fashioned ‘long s’, which looks just like an ‘f’.
These are some of the earliest books with coloured pictures on one side and text on the other. They shrink the world to a tiny scale – more tempting for small children – but also try to prepare them for the real world. Most captions are playful and friendly, but some sound stern and sexist: ‘Do not play with the ink-stand Maria, you will spoil your frock’.
The Infant’s Library came with its own wooden box, disguised as a glass-fronted bookcase (sadly missing from this set). It was split into four sections, holding 16 books in total.
Which of the books are shown here?
Furniture and other objects (book 4)
This book describes a curious range of household and garden objects, from a piping hot tea-urn to a pigeon-house. There’s a royal crown, a telescope and three musical instruments. On some pages, you might find a child’s doodles in pencil.
Outdoor scenes (book 6)
In this book, there are snapshots of outdoor life in 1800 – a lady in an ornate garden, people skating and fishing, ‘a labouring man’ sitting near the pub ‘after his hard day’s work’. At times, the author shows us how to read the pictures for meaning: a milk ‘churn standing by the door’ suggests that a woman makes butter.
Boys’ games (book 9)
These pages show boys playing leap frog and ‘hop hat’, spinning tops and marbles. At times, we are asked to join in: ‘Here is a little boy riding on a rocking-horse… Should you not like to ride too?’ But there are also warnings about the dangers of some games, such as ‘bows and arrows’.
Girls’ games (book 13)
Here, girls in floor-length dresses play catch, blindman’s buff and ‘push-pin’, but they are banned from swinging which is ‘dangerous’ and ‘improper’. They also practice the piano, dance with their friends and care for their dolls – rehearsing the skills that are expected of them as young middle-class ladies.
Who was John Marshall?
The London bookseller and publisher, John Marshall, often described himself as ‘The Children’s Printer’. He had a sharp eye for the profits to be made from children’s books, and he built on the work of publishers John Newbery and Thomas Boreman to expand that market. Around 1800, he invented a new range of miniature libraries, probably starting with The Juvenile; or Child’s Library (pictured below), closely followed by The Infant’s Library and others. He also made cabinets of picture-cards, puzzles and teaching kits. These were in tune with fashionable ideas about learning through practical play – as expressed by John Locke and Maria and Richard Edgeworth.
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London