Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight

An investigation of miniaturisation focusing on nineteenth century mass-produced miniature objects in working class contexts.


Multum in parvo

From the late eighteenth century onwards, people of limited means in industrialising countries were likely to spend a proportion of their disposable income on “useless” non-utilitarian decorative objects. Miniature representations of a wide range of real or imaginary originals, many of these were displayed in the domestic context on mantelpieces. To fill a gap in both archaeological and historical research into the recent past, this study examines the importance of miniaturisation and what these small-scale objects can tell us about everyday life in the nineteenth century. My research reveals that the panoply of figures on the mantelpiece would often include plaster of Paris “images,” a class of decorative miniature three-dimensional object that, because of its low value and fragility, has not generally survived in the present. By archaeologically “excavating” a contemporary record of a mid-nineteenth-century mantelpiece and identifying and interrogating the artefacts on it, I explore for the first time the complex global network of creativity, trade and consumption with which these objects link, and which demonstrates the knowledge, intellectual lives, tastes and interests of those who desired and delighted in them.

An image-seller with his tray of plaster figurines on his head

Last updated 8th August 2022


The research question
1: Introduction
"Strange objects enough": miniature objects in working-class contexts
The value of miniature objects to archaeologists and historians
Serendipitous research: exploring virtual resources
The material culture of miniaturisation
Plaster of Paris
Mini-me: my involvement in this study
2: Encounters with miniaturisation
A Dinky dustbin lorry
The key
My mother
My sister
My brother
The Hucknall Miniaturists Society
A mantelpiece in Wales
Two transparencies
A tipper wagon from Ghent, Belgium
A girl with Staffordshire dog and parrot
Two ballerina clocks
Love letters
"A crude white porcelain figure:" From Sandhills to Sandpoint
A Venus
3: "The importance of trifles"
Making sense of miniatures: an archaeological approach
Definitions: slippery meanings and small-scale things
Imaginary miniatures
The people from below: objects of delight in "working-class" contexts
"Images": what this meant in the nineteenth century<
Mass-produced miniatures as material culture
The potent miniature
Miniatures as things
Things with power
The social life of miniatures
Miniatures as memories
Miniatures as playthings
Miniatures in the ecology of the home
The symbolic home
"Precious, useless objects"
Absence: the archaeology of nineteenth-century working-class homes
Contexts of absence
Absence: the fragile materiality of "images"
4: Methods
Working with what is left of the past
Two-dimensional archaeology
Going beyond archaeology
Interrogating the object
5: Green parrots and spotted cats
The Working-Class Context
Working-class materiality — the parlour problem
Fictional realities
The working-class home
Materiality and mantelpieces
The materiality of the mantelpiece
The patron saint of lost objects
6: The archaeology of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece I
"Of No Great Note": the historical context
The archaeological assemblage
The source of the artefacts
7: The archaeology of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece II
The ubiquitous image-seller
Image sellers' lives, reality and romance
Leather Lane and Saffron Hill
L'hiver est dur, la bise est froide
"As many heads as a Hydra:" The Romantic Image-Seller
Culture, language
Missionaries of art
Did you ever sell any? Image-seller humour
What image sellers sold
8: The archaeology of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece III
The miniatures
The cat connection
The cat conundrum
The feline race
Cats and the home
Once upon a time...
9: "Buy Image!" The archaeology of a ballad
"Buy Image!" lyrics excavated
Deeper excavation
Le Petit Marchand de Statuettes: a voice from the past
10: The archaeology of the Plumtree Court mantelpiece IV
Absences: the material conundrum
The usefulness of "useless things"
Who, why and how?
The Wally Dug
Taste and working-class images
Emulation, resistance and identity
"Lurking places:" the threat of revolution
Identity: the miniature as “selfie”
Changing and enduring tastes
Bric-à-brac: objects of dubious virtue
Nineteenth-century bric-à-brac: "all monsters and dust"
Trash and trumpery
"The plaster of Paris man finds his harvest"
Landladies, chambers of horrors and mysterious animals
The love of art
Such legs as these
Bollards — a mystery?
Figures of fun
The merry mantelpiece: a "museum in miniature"
Value: crime and the chimney-piece
11: Object Worlds
Things with which we live
Object worlds as reaction
Object worlds as collections
Object worlds in working-class homes
The rookery: fact or fantasy?
Parlours as phantasmagorias
Networks and entanglements
A stream of events
The network
12: Mantelpieces, miniatures and miniaturisation — conclusions
Speaking of what is: the power of common things
Future work
Ethnoarchaeology: The mantelpiece project
Contemporary archaeology: the archaeology of charity shops
A delight in "intricate innovations"
A delight in "images"
A delight in the "classical"
A delight in "superfluities"
A delight in humour
A delight in group-consciousness
A delight in "art"
A worldwide delight
In summary
13: Two Stories
The image-boy's tale
A tale from Plumtree Court
Appendix I: I for images: the image-seller in images
Appendix II: Images in words
Appendix III: The broken cow and other stories


This online version of my PhD thesis has been reformatted, edited, corrected and in some places enhanced from the original hard copy. Both text and illustrations are copyright.

The existence of an image in this version does not infer in any way that it is in the public domain.