The world of miniatures is a gargantuan subject. There seems no end to our impulse to translate reality into something we can hold in our hands and see at a single glance. British niche historian Simon Garfield — who has written about typography (“Just My Type: A Book About Fonts”) and cartography (“On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks”) — trains an eccentric focus on all things tiny in his new book, “In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World.”
Rather than a chronological narrative, the book is a collage of essays. Zipping from ancient Egyptian shabti dolls and 19th century European flea circuses to the world of contemporary micro-miniaturist art, Garfield pinpoints what underlies our compulsion to make large things small. “We bring things down to size to understand and appreciate them,” Garfield writes. “Something too big to visualize at full scale — a building perhaps, or a war — may be rendered comprehensible at 1:12. Artists — sculptors, set designers, poets — work in miniature because it encourages greater scrutiny and deeper participation.”
Beyond sharpening our observations of our world, Garfield theorizes, miniaturization is a way of wielding control over our lives — or at least an illusion of it. “We live in a huge and doomy world,” he writes, “and controlling just a tiny scaled-down part of it restores our sense of order and worth.”
Garfield begins with the building of the Eiffel Tower, which he admits is a rather large edifice. But upon its opening in 1889, it had a strangely diminishing effect on its surroundings. “Visitors were shocked,” he notes, “to find that the tallest structure on earth had suddenly shrunk the world around it.”
As if to turn the tables on this landmark that transformed Paris into “both map and metaphor,” entrepreneurs manufactured little Eiffel Towers made of chocolate, pastry and metal that tourists snapped up by the thousands. The truly obsessed built their own Eiffel Towers out of matchsticks, toothpicks and other materials.
Of course, it wasn’t just the Eiffel Tower that inspired a passion for the miniature. Model villages — Bekonscot outside London, Tiny Town in Colorado, Splendid China in Shenzen, Madurodam in The Hague — can be found all over the world. Even guerrilla artist Banksy has gotten in on the action with Dismaland, his dystopian parody of Disneyland.
British model-village expert Tim Dunn, interviewed by Garfield, is frank about what triggers a fixation on miniature worlds: “Frustration,” he says. “Modelers may be frustrated about the past or the future. They might be seeking solace. It could be that they’re trying to control the future by building a three-dimensional utopia.”
Monetary profit is just as powerful a motive. Hamburg’s Miniatur Wunderland — a model railway created less than 20 years ago, with 10 miles of track, 1,000 trains and 260,000 figurines populating its landscape — is now one of Europe’s top 10 tourist attractions.
Model-making has served more sober purposes, too. A yardlong model of a British slave ship played a key role in Britain’s withdrawal from the slave trade in 1807. A 400-square-foot replica of the battlefield at Waterloo, displayed 23 years after the conflict, altered perspectives as to what led to Wellington’s victory over Napoleon.
Garfield spices up his book with humor. “The flea circus was a real and vivid thing, by turns glamorous and pathetic, and Victorians ruined their eyes trying to make one and see one,” he notes. “Fleamasters discovered that only the human flea (Pulex irritans), as opposed to the cat or dog flea, was sufficiently large and intelligent to carry on circus duties.”
Some inquiries deliver more fascinating results than others, depending on your tastes. I can’t summon much enthusiasm for the feverish collectors’ market for half-scale Eames chairs. Garfield himself, commenting on the YouTube craze for mini-food preparation (millions of views — who knew?), acknowledges that “some of us just don’t have the patience for mini peeling and mini sauce reduction.”
Still, there’s lots to take away from this charmer of a book, both anecdotally and philosophically. “A miniature,” Garfield proposes, “is a souvenir in physical form, a commemoration of our own tiny imprint on the planet.”
That small statement speaks volumes.
“In Miniature: How Small Things Illuminate the World” by Simon Garfield, Atria Books, 323 pp., $25