The Smallest English Dictionary in the World, Bryce's (1890)
BRYCE'S ENGLISH DICTIONARY
David Bryce & Son, Glasgow
1 1/8" (27mm) x 3/4" (20mm), 384 pages set in 1-1/2 pt type.
There is an interesting story behind how I ended up buying a copy of The Smallest English Dictionary in the World. Here it is shown with the iPhone 4S to give you an idea of just how small it is.
The story here began on a normal Saturday morning, when I sat down to read the newspaper in the sunshine with a cup of coffee. The particular paper was The Times (often erroneously called 'The Times of London') and I caught sight of the story at the bottom of the page squeezed between advertisments.
And because I like to tweet interesting stories about things related to the English language I knew that this was one that I wanted to share. Knowing, however, that the online version of the Times sits behind a paywall I knew that I'd have to search for the story elsewhere.
To my surprise, I found only one news tory about this book online and this was in the Scottish Daily Record newspaper. I tweeted a link to their story. But, because this story was even shorter than the one in the Times, I had to search for more by including information from the two articles: Graham York (selling it), Honiton in Devon (where he owns a bookshop). My next google search led me, not to his bookshop or to more news stories about this book but, to the actual book, online at abe books UK and for sale. And at a strangely affordable price, for what was being described as the world's smallest dictionary. So I bought it!
And here it is, and it is beautiful. It measures 27 mm by 19 mm and has a cool engraving of Dr Samuel Johnson. The full title reads:
The Smallest Dictionary in the World – Comprising: besides the ordinary and newest words in the language [,] short explanations of a large number of scientific, philosophical, literary, and technical terms.
The book has 385 pages, a reported 13,000 definitions and is set in 1 and a half point size.
So here we have it, the iPhone 4S from 2011 next to what could be described as one of the original apps from 1890. This 18th-century showpiece is still thinner – and arguably just as useful in its day as the smartphone is today – than the iPhone, packing an awful lot of punch for its size and weight.
The tiny volume is bound with limp leather known as red moroccan, which I now know to be the technical term for goat skin. It features gilt writing on the front cover (also known in the rare-book trade as the 'top cover') and on the spine. You can see that the cover reads Bryce'e English Dictionary. The Spine features the words 'English Dictionary' within a circle (see image below).
Importantly, the back cover (also the 'bottom cover') is blank. More about this to read further down on this page.
The book itself comes in a purpose-built locket made for portability and protection. This case will be the reason that this book as remained in such pristine condition these past 120 years. Ironically, the tin – a metal – has seen much more wearing than the book, made of mere paper.
So, here it is in all of its glory. The smallest dictionary in the world (1890).
The publisher information reads, 'Glasgow: David Bryce and Son. [All rights reserved.]'
The next page reads:
Dedicated by the publishers to Mrs. Kendal in appreciation of kindly encouragement given to the production of tiny articles, of which she was a unique collector
The printer is listed as Robert Maclehose, Glasgow.
Then we have the preface text:
The special feature of this little volume is, that by the omission of some words which can hardly be supposed either in spelling or meaning to offer any difficulty to people likely to consult a dictionary, space has been found for a considerable number of puzzling words occurring in the scientific and other higher literature of our time. Care, however, has been taken to omit none of those common words whose spelling or exact use occasions at times a momentary difficulty even to well-educated people. A similar rule has been observed in marking pronunciation: only such words as may reasonably give room for doubt have been marked. The main aim of the compilation is to give as much useful information as possible in a xxxxxx space, and in a familiy and, it is hoped, an xxxxxx form.
The preface continues on the next page:
With this view, where noun, adjective and verb are all obviously connected in meaning, one only has sometimes been inserted ; but in explaining the inserted word, kindred omitted words have either been explained or a key to their meaning has been supplied. The little volume will thus be found to contain the meaning of very many more words than it apparently professes to explain.
And then the dictionary starts with section A. On this page alone there are some interesting definitions:
Abaft ad. toward the stern; Abandoned a. very wicked; Abash v. make ashamed; Abed ad. in bed, on the bed; Abevance n. state of suspence; Aberration n. act of wandering; Abiogenesis n. production of life from not living matter.
Another page, chosen randomly, features:
Ambulance n. kind of movable hospital; Amerce v. punish with a fine; Americanism n. an American idiom; Americanize v. render American; Amiable a. worthy of love; Amoroso n. a lover.
Here is one more random page or definitions:
Champagne n. brisk sparkling wine; Chary a. careful, cautious; Chastise v. correct; Chess n. ingenious game played on checkered board; Cheveril n. kid [goat, not child]; Chiffonier n. small side-beard.
Back to the locket, the glass has also done well. There are no obvious scratches or cracks. Notice, too, that the insides have survived better than the outside ...
... as you can see. There is no writing on the outside or inside of this locket (more about this below) and the squiggly lines continue throughout. I am not an expert but I would say that the metal was quite cheap and coated with some sort of metal coating that has since mostly worn off.
The books were apparently sold with different types of locket, priced and priced to suit different pockets. There was the tin, brass and sterling silver versions. The brass locket was squarer, with a motif of a bird engraved on it and was also hinged, while the more expensive silver case actually had a front plate that swivelled round horizontally to reveal the book.
So, to answer the inevitable question: howwas it read? The answer lies in the glass on the front face of the locket, which is actually a magnifying glass rather than being a mere window. A bit of squinting is still involved when looking through it but it does a remarkable job of enlarging the type.
So, what do we know about this dictionary? Who would have bought it? Is it rare? If so, how was a mere mortal like myself able to buy it?
Well, first off, the book cost me £130 ($200). Now, I may well have been ripped off but who knows? It gives me great pleasure to feature it on my site and to marvel in having a copy of a magnificent little book.
One question that I had was: is it the actual same book as the one pictured in the news story? (PS this image above has been blogged about and splashed about the internet everywhere so I use it here courtesy of Phil Yeoman, who I hope will let me feature it if I give him an actual image credit, which most places online don't seem to be doing.) By examining the gaps in the gilt letters and the pattern of the skin, my conclusion is yes.
The next question is: who, what, why where? Well, from what I can find out there was a craze for miniature books in the late 1800s (and another in the 1970s and 1980s.) The definition of miniature book is Bryce and Son publishers in Glasgow, Scotland, made a whole series of books to profit from theis trend.
The Bryce company made miniature versions of many different books. I found a website that lists its own inventory of Bryce miniature books here.
They apparently made three miniature dictionaries: the first in their series was The Thumb English Dictionary (50 mm x 42 mm, above); second came Bryce's Diamond English Dictionary, 860 pages; and third came The World's Smallest English Dictionary.
It turns out that a friend of mine had a copy of the Thumb dictionary made by Bryce and Son.
This book features a quirky way of reading by featuring the words "sideways" from the traditional Western left-right layout. This book, the first of the Bryce miniature dictionaries, is set in 4-point type and is much bigger than mine.
You can see that although small, the Thumb sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb in comparison with the third in the series.
So, how did they make these tiny books? Or, more precisely, how did they print such small type all that long ago? The method, I am told, is through photographic reproduction. (I don't know any more aout this process.)
But these two books were just scaled-down versions of the same "image". I have checked the contents of the two and, while the actual definitions appear to be the same, the smaller version is not the same "book but smaller" of the Thumb. You can see that the title is different from the smaller version too.
The most obvious thing I noticed was that the frontispiece (engravings of Dr Johnson) are not the one and the same. There is significantly more detail and more lines in the larger drawing. The "signature" is also thinner in the Thumb.
That makes the Smallest the number top of the range of Bryce's assortment. It must have been expensive then and must be expensive now, surely? How rare are they?
So, even though it turns out that the original newspaper article in the Times newspaper that I read that sunny October morning made it sound as though the pristine copy featured in the story had been "unearthed" after 100 years, and therefore was a most rare book, it seems that it isn't as unique as it seems. There don't, however, seem to many of them about.
It was a quirky story about a quirky book. I am still happy that I bought because I have now been able to add to its history and immortalise it here on this website.
Another strange thing is that I discovered several websites stating that Graham York, the bookseller from the beginning of our story, would be showing the book to the "great interest" at the Chelsea Book Fair, in London, on 2–3 November 2012. I bought the book from him in October. That weekend happens to be right now, as I write these words, so I hope that there aren't too many disappointed people there looking for it.
Anyway, I hope that I have redeemed myself by posting this blog.
NOTE: The above text is the original post (Nov 2012) about this tiny dictionary and how I came to acquire it. Below is a summary of the information that I have compiled since thanks to further research and e-mails from all around the world.
Varieties of Bryce's miniature dictionaries
Well, the evidence that I have managed to gather is this:
Smallest English Dictionary
Bryce's English Dictionary.
• A) The Smallest English Dictionary in the World was sold by Bryce and Son with three (or possibly more) types of locket. These have the cover title of Bryce's English Dictionary
• It was also published in the US. To tell if you have one of these versions the title page will feature 'New York : Frederick A. Stokes Co, Publisher' in place of the 'Bryce and Son' text on the inside page.
• There were as many as 100,000 of these US ones printed*.
• B) Many of these featured paid advertising for Pears Soap, which would have made them cheaper to buy. These would have made up for many tens of thousands – a majority, I am guessing – of the total number sold.
• These Pears versions differ from the unbranded originals by bearing the title of just English Dictionary in gilt on the cover and a large 'PEARS' on the back page. These are, of course, hallmarks not found on my version. UPDATE: These appear to also have been published as 'Bryce and Son' versions.
• UPDATE: There seem to also be a version featuring Bryces English Dictionary on the cover AND PEARS on the back.
• These Pears versions were made from roan, rather than moroccan, leather.
• There are also many lockets (made in the US I believe) that have engraved text of the title, 'The Smallest Dictionary in the World', on the front.
• Despite there being so many printed all those decades ago, there are apparently not that many left in existence. There are fewer non-Pears and non-Frederick Stokes versions. You seem to be able to pick up the Pears ones (and those in not so good condition) for around under $100.
Cole's English Dictionary
• C) There appears to be an Australian version, the Cole's English Dictionary
At this stage I do not any anything else about this variant, so please get in touch if you know anything about it. It might be the rarest of the all – but don't quote me on it. UPDATE: I did get some further information by e-mail. See the fuller description about this one below this box.
Update: September 2013
Cole's English Dictionary, Bryce's ?? (–)
David Bryce & Son, Glasgow ?????
1 1/8" (27mm) x 3/4" (20mm), XXX pages set in 1-1/2 pt type.
There is what I believe to be an Australian version with the cover title COLE'S ENGLISH DICTIONARY.
This particular one, with images supplied by K.K. in Sydney, Australia, comes in the familiar tin locket.
Apart from that everything else seems to be the same.
As you can see the inside text pages are the same and there does not seem to be any inner reference to "Cole's" and as to where/when it was published.
This is a photo I found online of the Cole's English Dictionary. There was no other supplementary information about the book itself in the page featuring it. The locket looks to be of the standard tin variety and identical to the case that my own copy of Bryce's came in. There is no way of knowing at this stage where it was published and by whom.
Pearson's Miniatire Dictionary, Bryce's (–)
David Bryce & Son, Glasgow
Printed by Robert Maclehose, Glasgow
1 1/8" (27mm) x 3/4" (20mm), XXX pages set in 1-1/2 pt type.
Following an e-mail from J.G. from Glasgow (19 Sep 2013), who has a copy of yet another miniature dictionary. This one has PEARSON'S MINIATURE DICTIONARY on the from. This one reportedly printed by Robert Maclehose printers in Glasgow.
It comes in the familiar 'globe' locket with magnifying glass. The insides feature the same contents as the other English dictionaries in the range. So far, this is all that I know about it so, as usual, if you know anything more about this book then please get in touch!
French and German dictionaries
Thanks to an e-mail from C.P. in Quebec, Canada, in August 2013 I have now discovered that there are yet MORE varieties of the Bryce miniature dictionary. It turns out that there are two foreign-language versions, one French–English and another German–English dictionaries.
Smallest French and English Dictionary, Bryce's (1896)
David Bryce & Son, Glasgow
1 1/8" (27mm) x 3/4" (20mm), XXX pages set in 1-1/2 pt type.
The dimensions are the same except that this and the German book is thicker than the English one. It also features Smallest French & English Dictionary in gilt on the cover, while the title page features the words: The Smallest French and English Dictionary in the World. The original publisher remains Bryce & Sons of Glasgow via George Bell & Sons, of London, but the edition is printed in Paris by F.E.A GASC M.A (of Paris).
Unlike the English dictionaries, which have one column of text per page, this French-English Dictionary is divided into three columns. There also appears to be many more pages to this book than the English ones.
There also appears to be an edition that does not have any text on the spine, as seen here. This photo also shows how much thicker it is.
Smallest German and English Dictionary, Bryce's (1896)
David Bryce & Son, Glasgow
1 1/8" (27mm) x 3/4" (20mm), XXX pages set in 1-1/2 pt type.
Just like the French & English Dictionary, this Smallest German & English Dictionary is a lot thicker than the original English dictionary.
The title page here is different from the French variant in that it is written in both English and German, on facing pages. Also unlike the French one, this is not called "Smallest" on the title page. Instead, the title page reads A New Pocket-Dictionary of the English and German Languages. Unlike any of the dictionaries on this webpage this book is helpful in giving a year or publication, in this case it is 1896.
Like the other deals done with Pears Soap for commerical versions of the English dictionary, it seems that the same arrangement was made for the German & English edition. As you can see above, the words are different and aligned differently, featuring SEIFE PEARS' SOAP on the back.
* These photos not featuring the whichenglish koala denote that they are photos that I have either been supplied with by readers or that I have found online but am unable to find the owner. Please let me know if these images are yours and I will credit you. I will also remove any images if you object to me featuring them here.
About David Bryce & Son, Glasgow
It is quite amazing that, in a world where everything is supposedly on the internet, there is so little online information to be found about the history of the Bryce & Son company.
Following the announcement that the Scottish National Library is currently (18 September – 17 November) staging an exhibition called Miniature books in Scotland. I have now found out a lot more about the history of the David Bryce & Sons company and their tiny dictionaries.
To start with, the accepted definition of miniature book is one measuring less than 7.5 cm (3") in height and width. The first miniature book in the world is thought to be a 5.2 cm x 4.5 cm copy of Officium Beatae Virginis Maria produced in 1475. Publisher David Bryce started producing miniature books in 1870 and the company continued under the guidance of his son until the First World War. In that time the company grew to become the world leading publishers of miniature books.
When David Bryce (1845–1923) took over his father's business he switched to miniature books when he realised that they sold better than ordinary editions. The first venture on his own was in publishing a large-format edition of the works of Robert Burns, which sold just 5000 copies. When reduced in size and split into two miniature volumes he then sold 100,000 copies.
Miniature books made the company a Scottish and global success. It is believed that David Bryce & Son produced 40 different miniature titles in the 50 years that the formats were popular. He was also the most prolific producer of miniature books.
Bryce built himself a sizable fortune on the back of the miniature books and became prominent business figure in Glasgow, Scotland and the UK. He bought the yacht Excelsior in 1900 and became a member of the pretigious Royal Clyde Yacht Club.
The National Library of Scotland even features a photo of David Bryce on its website about him. They set this page up in conjunction with the exhibition on Scottish miniature books held in the autumn/fall of 2013.
The page sheds further light on David Bryce himself. He apparently became partner in the family business in 1862, when he was 17, and he became the sole proprietor of the company when his father died in 1870.
The business hit the skids financially in 1913 and the assets were later sold to the Gowans and Gray business, which had shared the same building with the Bryce company since 1911.
These books were cutting-edge examples of late-19th century high tech and were a highly collectible technological marvel. There were two principle technologies at work that enabled the production of the thumb-sized books.
The first technique used to make the text so small was a process called photolithography. This was a form of photo reduction involving electroplates. In analogy it is like taking an A4 original page and reducing it on the photocopier to a tiny size.
The second technique needed was a process developed by the publishers at Oxford University in 1875. This was a special way of making ultrathin sheets of opaque paper that became known as India Paper. It is this paper that allows for the books to be so thin despite having hundreds of pages.
It is understood that David Bryce had good connections with the publishers at Oxford University and this enable him to use their paper in his hugely successful books. The paper and printing method is what allowed him to maintain clarity and legibility in such a small format.
Not just dictionaries
David Bryce & Sons produced some 40 titles over its lifetime. The most successful was the Smallest English Dictionary in the World. The company also published foreign-language dictionaries, including French and German.
In 1895 he published a miniature version of the New Testament that was 3cm in height. It, too, came in a locket, which many of the Bryce books were sold with. In 1900 Bryce published a miniature edition of the Koran in Arabic, which were issued to Muslim soldiers fighting for the Allied forces in the First World War. They were protected in war by the famous lockets.
UPDATE: 19 Sep 2013 – Today I saw on the news that there is currently an exhibition on in Edinburgh that is all about Scotland's history of miniature books. First of all, here are some news articles about it in The Scotsman, the BBC, The Courier and the Paisley Daily Express. Here is a link to the actual exhibition by the National Library of Scotland. The good news about all of this publicity is that I now have more information about Bryce & Sons (see above). I have now been able to find out a lot more about the makers of the miniature dictionaries. This has all been added to the above paragraphs.
Author of The Joy of English and editor of whichenglish.com
Links about miniature books
Miniature books are still highly collectible. If think that this is something for you then here are some useful links.
Scottish National Library – Miniature Books exhibition (2013)
• Bondy, Louis W 'Miniature books, their history from the
beginnings to the present day'. Farnham: Richard Joseph, 1994
• 'The Microbibliophile'. Vol. 1, no. 1 (Mar. 1977) — 'A
bi-monthly review of the literature concerning miniature books.'
• Welsh, Doris V 'The history of miniature books'. Albany, NY:
Fort Orange Press, 1987
• Welsh, Doris V 'A bibliography of miniature books (1470–1965)'. Cobleskill, NY: K I Rickard, 1989
Update: Since posting this feature late last year I have since received several interesting e-mails with questions and more information about the Smallest dictionary. [These are posted in order of newest first.]
19 Sep 2013 – Today I read about the exhibition of Scottish miniature books and managed to find out a little more about the history of Bryces. See above.
Sep 2013 – This month I received e-mails from J.G. in Glasgow, who told me about yet another variant of Bryce's dictionaries. This one has PEARSON'S MINIATURE DICTIONARY on the cover and came in the globe locket. This one is reportedly printed by Robert Maclehose, Glasgow.
I also heard from K.K. in Sydney, Australia, who found a copy of COLE'S ENGLISH DICTIONARY in her late relative's house. This was great because she also supplied some great photos as well.
5 Aug 2013 – Today I received an interesting e-mail from D.P. from the UK who writes that he has a copy of Bryce's Dictionary with some history to it. The previous owner apparently acquired from his father and was intrigued about its origin enough to write to the Daily Mirror for help in 1967. D.M. kindly sent me a photo of the book, its case, the original letter and associated press cutting. The photo (below) also shows the follow-up article that was published.
The first published letter reveals that the owner received the book from his late father, who had allegedly traded it for – I presume (the text is not clear) – a packet of cigarettes during "the South African War". The writer goes on to say the he believes that there were only 8 of these in existence and wonders where the others are.
The second cutting in this photo appears with the headline, 'Mini-book mystery solved', with the news from a "P Binks, of Minster, Ramsgate, Kent" that many other people appear to also own copies of this book – and presumably more than just a handful. The paper reports that it seems that originally there were 1000 copies and as far as it understands a certain "Mr Wannamaker, art dealer of New York" actually bought the entire output of these books and apparently took them back to the USA. And "they have never been seen since". Interestingly, the P Binks claims that 12 copies of the book remained with the mysterious Mrs Kendall – who no one today seems to know anything about. It is from these 12 that apparently only 8 were accounted for in 1967. P Binks also claims that one of these was sold for a tidy sum (I can't read the date or sum) in Sydney, Australia. [if you want to see the image larger then right-click and choose view image in new tab, or something to that effect.]
Well, it certainly makes for an interesting folk tale but thanks to the internet we know that at least 100,000 of these books were printed and that certainly more than 8 survive. Thank you N.P. for sending this in and adding to the knowledge base. It would be interesting to know more about this Mrs Kendall and, indeed, this Mr Wannamaker of New York. Stay tuned.
30 Mar 2013 – S.G. in Jacksonville, Florida, wrote to say that she had uncovered a locket version that had belonged to her mother. This version features 'English Dictionary' on the cover but the fragile nature of the book and the type of locket used meant that she was unable to see if it features 'PEARS' on the back. In all likelihood this is, indeed, a PEARS version but the new information gathered is that hers is published by 'Bryce and Sons', proving that these were either printed or licensed under the Bryce imprint. She also stated that her locket was made from brass and had the letters 'A.C.B' engraved on the back. She wondered if the 'B' could relate to Bryce but my gut feeling (without any other evidence) is that it is not. Remember, these were marketed and milked for their novelty value and that there was more margin in upselling expensive lockets and containers than there was in selling the books. Therefore I think that engraving was another optional extra available to buyers and that there will no doubt be many, many engraved lockets in existence. I am pretty sure that if it (the engraving) had belonged or was related to Bryce and Sons it would have had 'Bryce' in full. Remember, this was the company's prime marketing tool to the trade.
30 Mar 2013 – P.M. in Glasgow contacted me to say thanks for the wonderful article and because she was a school teacher she was hoping to use details from it in a lesson about dictionaries to inspire her Glasgow class. She particularly wanted to use the photo where I put the dictionary next to the line of Lego men. P.M., I am more than happy to inspire children about language and dictionaries. How nice that her Glasgow pupils can learn about their city's history with dictionary making.
30 Mar 2013 – M.D. wrote in to say that she had received a copy of the Smallest as a gift in 1967 when she was eight years old. She has preserved hers over the years but the outside of the locket has become more tarnished with time but that the inside has stayed pristine (as has mine). She wrote that she was thinking of buying a new case made from rhodium or silver but first wanted to know if the book was valuable or not. What was new that I learnt from her is that she her copy has both 'Bryce's Eng. Dic.' and 'PEARS' on the front and back. Her locket is made from tin and features the words 'A Midget Book – With Magnifying Glass' that is repeated on the back as well as a world globe in the middle.
30 Mar 2013 – Mrs J.M. wrote to say that she has a copy and wondered how many dictionaries are still in existence. My answer to her is that I have not managed to find any details or estimates about this.
30 Mar 2013 – L.W. in Melbourne, Australia, wrote to say that she has a water-damaged version with a difference.
Hers seems to have a relationship with India and the "locket" holding the book doubles as a book mark.
Unfortunately she did not have the complete book because hers had apparently gone down with a ship at some stage and somehow recovered. Her pages go up to 'WRECK', which is quite funny considering.
It does seem to feature a magnifying glass on the front and a window on the back. Thank you J.M., this was an interesting addition and thanks also for sending photos, which I hope you let me feature them on this page.
PS If you know anything else about the history of this magnificent little book then I would love it if you got in touch. Please send photos if you can but don't risk damaging anything in the process.