Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight

12: Mantelpieces, miniatures and miniaturisation — conclusions

Speaking of what is: the power of common things

Comment parler de ces "choses communes", comment les traquer plutôt, comment les débusquer, les arracher à la gangue dans laquelle elles restent engluées, comment leur donner un sens, une langue: qu'elles parlent enfin de ce qui est, de ce que nous sommes1.
(Pérec 1989, 11)

George Pérec, who peered through imagined keyholes to hunt for "common things", was a writer of inventories, a writer of life as lists of things, and was inspired by the slyly voyeuristic cartoons of Saul Steinberg (Figure 1). He would have no doubt been fascinated by, as I am, the nineteenth-century cross-section illustrations of tenements, with their displays of "common things", that I've included in this study2. I share with Pérec the belief that these objects tell of what we are. In doing so, they possess "value".


There are instances where it is difficult to avoid the impression that objects come ready-loaded with this property that can be called "value". For instance, a beach covered with pebbles is inanimate, the product of millions of years of erosion that occurred mostly before humans evolved. We have no cultural education in the value of pebbles, they don't feature in the national curriculum, there are no pebble museums or galleries (although see Figure 2), yet many of us delight in pebbles — we observe them, hunt amongst them for "special" examples, and pick them up and take them home to place on shelves and mantelpieces. This appears to be a common behaviour, and has been since Mesolithic times (e.g. Rhuddian, Clwyd3).

Pebbles are so meaningful that it is possible to obtain floor coverings and kitchen worktops bearing their images. We believe that pebbles with naturally-occurring holes are associated with good luck, healing or protection (Rowntree 2012). We are responding to some intrinsic allure that pebbles possess that could be called "thing power", responding to and translating that power into a desire to pick up, handle, possess and display them. Pebbles convey messages, even though we might not be able to translate those messages. Pebbles are miniature chunks of the world, and our ownership of them means that we "possess" at least a little of our planet. By picking up and collecting a pebble I have altered, albeit minutely, the surface of the Earth, and made it my own. In a world where we are forced to occupy smaller and smaller areas of its surface, owning several-million-year-old lumps of water- and wind-sculpted rock adds significantly to our sense of place. In addition, so much meaning many be concentrated in a tiny pebble that, polished and mounted, it can represent love and fidelity.

This slight diversion leads me to claim that this intrinsic agency of the object as something possessing "value" is even more concentrated in the miniature, an object created by and shared amongst humans. I have already noted that often these valued objects are not accurate models but are objects that represent ideas. For example, mantelpiece cats were (and are) frequently poorly modelled and bizarrely decorated. That hardly mattered. They exuded "catness".

The ubiquity of miniature objects, their existence since the earliest times, and our delight, comfort and interest on encountering them, is such that I hypothesise that there exists a sort of ready-made "slot" within the human make-up into which the concept of small things fits. Certainly, present-day cultures around the world make similar, if not identical, use of miniatures, be they tiny super heroes, Barbie, Little Kitty figures, erotic figurines, representations of ancient Greek gods, grotesque but cheerful pigs, soft toys, religious symbols, cute cats and even miniature three-dimensional "selfies". That a child accepts its first meeting with a miniature quite happily, instead of recoiling with horror at a bizarrely-shrunken version of reality, suggests that this "slot" has existed since humans evolved, but became easier to fill as mass-produced miniatures became widely available.

Carrying my hypothesis further, the "slot" would be hard-wired to the mind, but there it would be connected to different areas depending on age, gender, taste, culture, emotions and so on. Hence the "slot" of a child would be filled by different objects than that of an elderly adult. However it might be that the connections formed during childhood remain, to be activated later in life by an interest in, say, model railways or miniature villages. At this time cross-connections might occur with nostalgia, regret and similar notions4. These connections would be activated, switched on, by triggers such as objects on mantelpieces.

A challenge raised by this concept is identifying what evolutionary advantage would be conferred by the plugging-in of miniatures. For, it is true that it is possible to survive entirely successfully without ever possessing or even seeing a miniature object. Perhaps being able to conceive the world in miniature is linked to creativity, imagination and the ability to plan ahead and avoid danger. Or, as Bronze Age and Neolithic miniatures of buildings suggest, to facilitate construction, or envisioning a whole. Perhaps it is a link to the concept of distance, to the understanding of things that are a long way away (this is suggested by the possible link between the development of the ability to represent linear perspective from the fifteenth century onwards and model-making — Leonardo da Vinci and others were actively creating architectural models at the time). Or, as demonstrated by our instinctive cradling of tiny things like Frozen Charlottes, our reactions to miniatures are related to the evolutionary advantages gained by caring for helpless infants — miniature people.

It could be argued that these objects are merely blanks onto which their owners impose their individual "meanings", rather like Barthe's "virtually empty" Eiffel Tower5 that can mean everything (Barthe 1979, 4). This could be true, after all I've shown above that, for example, a plaster Venus can have a number of differing associations6. But amongst nineteenth-century working classes, there was general recognition that Venus was ancient, and, as Dickens' Mr Dennis confirms7, represented beauty. Individual feelings about a plaster cat might differ, but there was sufficient agreement about the "catness" of cats to make these plaster pets a staple product of image-sellers. Barthe goes on to write that the Tower "attracts meaning" (Ibid), which I would interpret as agency, just as plaster Venuses or cats attract meaning.

Future work

In this study I have encountered much unexplored territory. Like any pioneering explorer, who records unfamiliar coastlines, new mountain ranges, newly-met indiginours peoples and the like, I have used a broad brush. As an introduction, it is unavoidably a work in progress. I have assembled more than 150 illustrations and nearly 300 contemporary texts, all of which demand and deserve further scrutiny beyond the scope of this thesis. There are almost certainly many more references to nineteenth-century working-class miniature objects that I have yet to discover, and many more clues that will allow me to learn more about the people who delighted in them. As I travelled my research journey I also started two projects that will continue:

Ethnoarchaeology: The mantelpiece project:

To examine people's interactions with miniature mantelpiece ornaments and identify patterns, if present, I constructed a portable mantelpiece (Mills' Mobile Mantelpiece, Figure 3) that can be moved to and located in any room with a empty wall space. In an initial pilot in the Paper Gallery, Manchester, a supply of charity shop miniatures was provided, and people were encouraged to choose and arrange them as they wished on the mantelpiece. The results of each assemblage were recorded photographically. This was successful in attracting both interest and a number of different arrangements. I shall develop and repeat the exercise in as many differing environments as possible.

Contemporary archaeology: the archaeology of charity shops:

My work on the mantelpiece and on the archaeology of charity shops follows roughly the approach described by Wilkie and Bartoy (2000). I want to look at the descendants of those who lived in the nineteenth century—us—in order to attempt to demonstrate their lived experience. It is those descendants who provide charity shops with their stock and who buy the miniatures displayed there. It is their descendants who accumulate collections of china pigs and frogs and who construct model railways and dolls houses, and who display nostalgia for an age that no one now living can remember.

In creating this project I erected a hypothesis: that the types of miniatures on display in charity shops (for example Figure 4) reflect their hinterland communities. Because they involve patterns of discard charity shops can be regarded as archaeological sites with continually-changing assemblages of artefacts. Within those assemblages, it is significant which miniature objects are popular, and unpopular, which disappear from the shelves and which languish.

As a pilot I recorded the miniature objects on sale in a number of shops operated by small charities (i.e. those with single outlets and without large-scale sales centralising businesses) in Nottingham, in areas that could be recognised as ranging from working-class to middle-class (as defined by average income). Initial results were encouraging, suggesting for example, that lower income areas preferred "realistic" animals to "cartoon" animals (Mills 2014).

Objects of Delight — conclusions

Though they are not of marble, and would perhaps never be thought of, in connection with exhibitions of statuary, as "things of art", yet sure we are that there are many who feel the beauty of these images, where affectation of higher pretensions to taste would disown seeing it. No wonder, then, that these innocent little creatures are so popular as mantel and hearth ornaments.
(Harbaugh 1860)

The mantelpiece, once ubiquitous in nineteenth-century working-class homes across the industrialising world, formed a stage on which Harbaugh's "innocent little creatures" — miniature versions of animals, people and things, real or imaginary — performed.

A delight in "intricate innovations"

I took the title of my research from a 2011 newspaper article by Pat Kane in which he wrote of "our sheer delight in the intricate innovations that our fellow humans serve up to us. We are radical animals — able to distance ourselves from our instincts sufficiently enough to shape the world according to our imaginations" (Kane 2011 29). Kane was writing about 21st century consumerism, nevertheless his words apply to my significant over-arching premise, which is that:

Since the start of the industrial revolution, working-class people shaped their domestic worlds by delighting in miniature objects, "intricate innovations", that were previously available only to elites. These decorative, non-utilitarian objects were known as "images".

Some of these miniatures, manufactured from robust ceramics, survived to become antiques and collectibles, or to be excavated on archaeological sites. I have concluded that their enduring presence has overly influenced our envisioning of the nineteenth-century working-class interior. An even greater number of small-scale objects were made from cheaper, but fragile, plaster of Paris. These have almost completely vanished, apart from a few curated survivals, and since plaster of Paris rapidly breaks down in most soils, they are not present as tangible "finds" in the archaeological record8.

A delight in "images"

Whilst acknowledging the presence of the ceramic miniature, my research has for the first time examined in detail, and celebrated, the network in which plaster of Paris "images" and those who made, sold and acquired them, were and are entangled. "Images" represented a host of very different originals that provide new insights into nineteeth century working-class life. For example, my research shows that they demonstrated the popularity, in "ordinary" households, of the domestic cat, pushing its importance as a welcome companion back into the eighteenth century, earlier than previously assumed. I've also discussed the significance of other beasts, such as parrots and so-called "Staffordshire dogs".

A delight in the "classical"

I also claim for the first time that the presence on so many working-class mantelpieces of miniature Greek and Roman gods, goddesses and other mythical beings indicates a higher level of, if not always of "knowledg"e" certainly of awareness of these characters from the distant past. They "meant" something in the nineteenth century. This was also true of literary and intellectual celebrities such as the ever-popular Shakespeare and Milton, and of political and religious figures. There was an interest and delight in the "classical". Other miniature objects enabled people to indulge their tastes for the sentimental, for the erotic, the humorous, the exotic and the purely decorative. Plaster of Paris images also fed the fantasy of an idyllic past, whether that was a rural utopia or a golden age of chivalry.

A delight in "superfluities"

Though life for many, if not the majority of working-class people across the globe was often hard and challenging, they nevertheless frequently chose to spend a significant amount of their spare income on "useless" objects. This enables us to judge what these mostly-anonymous people regarded as "valuable". My research means that we can join nineteenth century working-class people in hearing the heavily-accented cries of the figurinai and see these "dark-eyed" "sunburnt" "sons of Italy" amongst the bustle of city streets and along quiet country lanes with their trays of "images" on their heads or their baskets slung from their shoulders. We can imagine image-sellers being celebrated in popular song, the tunes of two of which I have resurrected and digitised to accompany my thesis, so that it is possible to hear their tunes for the first time in over 150 years. Through my research we can now share the familiarity of the "image-boy" or "image-man" by exploring — "excavating" — illustrations in children's books and alphabets, as well as in chap-books extolling The Cries of Paris, The Cries of London, The Cries of New York and others of their kind. I've also "excavated" paintings and photographs. I've highlighted the evolution during the nineteenth century of the perception of image-sellers from scruffy peddlers into attractive figures of romance, as reflected in works of art, in verse and in fiction. I've collected examples of a genre of postcards, apparently an early twentieth-century French romantic enthusiasm. I've discovered a couple of ghost stories and at least one fairy tale that would have entertained nineteenth-century "ordinary" readers and listeners, and I've posited that there was, and perhaps is, a connection with superstition.

A delight in humour

Several strands of nineteenth-century working-class life run through my research. One is the toughness of everyday existence, here shown by the lives of the itinerant peddlers and by the often violent abuse meted out on working children, as well as bullying, crime, racism and xenophobia. There was also a constant parallel vein of humour that appeared in the popular media of the time, and which included the adventures and misadventures of images, their sellers and buyers, as well as attitudes towards taste, good or bad. That humour frequently reflected the period in echoing what we regard now as the less-attractive traits and attitudes of all classes. It also revealed widespread misogyny, suggesting that women possessed poor taste and behaved foolishly, for example exchanging their husbands' clothing for striped cats. Yet I believe that it was women who purchased the bulk of the "innocent little creatures" that graced so many mantelpieces.

A delight in group-consciousness

My research has led me to claim that the knick-knacks on the mantelpiece, like the mirror that was often hung above it, "meant something", enough to make them subjects of pride, of status and self-identification, of fun and fascination. They reflected the life, the identity, the thinking, the attitudes, "likes", values and enthusiasms of their owners back into the domestic space. While a little of this might have been driven by emulation or a "striving upwards" (to use George Godwin's 1856 words) I argue that much of the meaning of the miniatures was a concentration of group consciousness which ignored and actively resisted the disapproval of middle-and upper-class commentators who, perhaps threatened by increasing working-class materiality, unsuccessfully belittled the "trash and trumpery" of working-class bric-à-brac.

A delight in "art"

Miniature artefacts, mostly overlooked by archaeologists and historians, show us that nineteenth and early twentieth century working-class life was richer materially (if not in monetary terms) and in meaning than has been previously assumed. From Octavia Hill's poor woman's "bits of things" to Robert Robert's father's pride in his overmantel collection of bric-à-brac, together with the assemblage on Godwin's Plumtree Court mantelpiece and its spotted cats and parrot, and with the millions of Venuses de Milo and Napoleons and Praying Samuels, to the plaster of Paris busts of Mozart and Beethoven standing on to that acme of working-class achievement, the piano, working-class "object worlds" were rich with meaning and heavy with value beyond the few pence or cents of their initial cost. Indeed, to use George Godwin's words, there was a general "love of art".

A worldwide delight

Another highly significant finding is the commonality of working-class taste across the industrialising world during the nineteenth century. The stock in trade of image-sellers was basically the same in Russia or Australia, Brazil or Liberia, the US or Sweden. There were variations that recognised local celebrities or religious sensibilities, but it is apparent that in general the image-sellers and their stock in trade were an important element in a common materiality.

In his 2003 essay Material Culture after Text: Re-Membering Things, Bjørnar Olsen wrote: "...the thing is that which gathers, which brings together and which lasts: in other words, it relates qualities in time and space: the ideal node in a network." I started with a thing, a prosaic plaster of Paris cat, on a mid-nineteenth-century mantelpiece in a working-class parlour in "an area of no great note" of Holborn, London. That piece of bric-à-brac was a "node" in a complex network that links the owners of the mantelpiece in 1856 with itinerant street vendors in nearby Shoe Lane, with northern Italy, Russia, New York, Havana, Napoleon, Venus de Milo, British seaport brothels, charity shops in Nottingham or Leeds, myself, you the reader and beyond. The plaster cat is both part of an assemblage of objects on the mantelpiece and an assemblage of relationships, a network of things, images, words and archaeological and historical evidence.


Stephen Riggins, analysing a domestic environment, wrote of the overarching importance of "flavour"9 — the overall impression of a context, its atmosphere and character (Riggins 1994, 115). In my experience that is the aim of and challenge facing all archaeology, to achieve a sense of life in the past through the study of material things. It has been the aim of this project to use miniature objects to access the "flavour" of nineteenth-century working-class life rather than merely describe it. To sense that life, and to make sense of it.

The objects on mantelpieces were important ingredients of that flavour: their tactility, their dimensionality, their colour, what and who they represented, their values, their humour, their sentimentality, their nostalgia, their eroticism, their fantasies, their magic. That they linked ordinary people in a host of modernising countries with a delight in ancient things — Venuses, Cupids, Apollos and the like — speaks of deeper nuances of that flavour. That they linked with a delight in domesticated animals, in the ideas of valued pets — spotted cats, gaudy parrots — speaks of a flavour of gentleness amongst people who had little to spare and whose apparent cruelty is better known. That they linked with the exotic — Grecian urns, bowls of impossible fruit, vases of never-wilting flowers. That they linked tenement-dwellers with great writers, poets and playwrights — Shakespeares, Miltons, Goethes and others — speaks of an intellectual flavour not often recognised, yet encouraged at the time. That they linked growing populations of working people with figures such as Napoleon and Garibaldi suggests an undercurrent of political resistance that balanced the presence of Washington, Victoria and the ruling classes.

In summary:

Miniatures were representations, at a reduced scale, of meaningful originals — things, people, works of art. Given the often-low quality of sculpting, the lack of detail (abstraction), the interchangeability of figurine identities (the same mould was used to represent several very different identities) and the fact that many originals were imaginary, miniatures were not generally intended to be accurate portraits but to be "ideas" or stereotypes. A figurine of Nelson or Napoleon or a cat possessed agency that inspired the viewer/owner to think about and conjure up their hero or an animal. They were images rather than models.

Miniatures were much more than small decorative objects. It is apparent that figurines, from prehistoric times onwards, were complex objects that were created in order to represent thought and behaviour rather than mirror solid reality. They possessed concentrated 'power'. They 'made' us want to own and display them. They possessed agency simply by being miniaturised, and triggering a reaction that I suggest is a basic human behaviour.

Counterintuitively, miniatures were and are assumed to have 'insides', to possess 'life' rather than being three-dimensional pictures, mere lumps of plaster, clay or metal. A miniature cat only "works" if it is assumed to possess qualities of a living, full-sized animal, the property of "catness".

Miniatures could act as material memories, could be memories as well as triggering memories. They could provide memories even when these were absent, and could create and memorialise memories for those who never experienced them.

Miniatures provided an opportunity to wield power for people with limited freedom, or forced by circumstances to lead narrow, monotonous lives. Their owners had the ultimate power of assembling, moving and rearranging an assemblage of objects on a mantelpiece to suit their individual tastes, desires, fantasies and memories.

Miniatures were easily portable from home to home in an age of insecurity and mobility. Since the hearth was at the heart of a household, the assemblage of ornaments created a "home" wherever they were displayed. They acted as a "bank" that could be regularly used as a source of temporary income, and so possessed monetary as well as sentimental value.

I have rediscovered an almost forgotten activity — the peddling of figurines across the nineteenth-century industrialising world. I have refocused attention on a little-known group — the figurinai, the image-sellers and makers, and their roles in nineteenth-century life. I have scrutinised, for the first time, a class of miniature objects, the hundreds of characters they represent and what they tell us about working-class thought. I have drawn attention to the use of the word "image" and its importance in the material culture of the "long" nineteenth century. I have learned a little about "objects of delight" (Figure 5)!


Footnote 1

"How are we to speak of these 'common things', how to track them down rather, how to flush them out, wrest them from the dross in which they remain mired, how to give them a meaning, a tongue, to let them, finally, speak of what is, of what we are". Translation


Footnote 2

See Chapter 5.


Footnote 3

Five deliberately inscribed/decorated pebbles were found in the 1970s at Rhuddian, Clwyd, Wales, in a site dating to approx. 9,000 years BP (Berridge and Roberts 1994, 115).


Footnote 4

In a recent Twitter exchange, two historical archaeologists complained that when they asked communities for historical memories, all they got was childhood nostalgia.


Footnote 5

It is ironic that in the twentieth century, miniature Eiffel Towers became a familiar sight on mantelpieces, even of those who have never been to France.


Footnote 6

See Chapter 10


Footnote 7

Barnaby Rudge, see Chapter 10.


Footnote 8

Although lime-based plasters survive well on archaeological sites the only archaeological find of a gypsum-based plaster artefact I have found was of the head of a sphinx — a prop from the 1923 film The Ten Commandments


Footnote 9

Riggins uses the US spelling: "flavor".


Figure 1

Section through apartment building
Figure 1: No Vacancy (1949) Saul Steinberg, from The Art of Living. Compare with the New York tenement [link to come].

Figure 2

Eighteenth century document describing pebbles
Figure 2: Pebbles (1770) Anon.

Figure 3

Miniatures arranged on a portable mantelpiece
Figure 3: Charity shop miniatures from the author's collection on "Mills' Mobile Mantelpiece".

Figure 4

Miniature jocular pigs on a charity shop shelf
Figure 4: Archaeology of the charity shop (photograph, the author).

Figure 5

Woman looking with desire at two figurines held out to her by a London hawker
Figure 5: Objects of delight — London Street Seller, 1952 (detail). (©Henry Grant Collection/Museum of London).

Last updated 1st February 2020