Fires of Prometheus

Objects of Delight

3: "The importance of trifles"1

The background to the study

There is so much to learn not only from the things we value but also from the rubbish, detritus and discarded things.
(Attfield 2000, xv)

"The working man's home", wrote Simon Patten in 1907, "is crowded with tawdry, unmeaning and useless objects; each pointless object is loved, however, as the mark of superiority and success, and its enjoyment energizes the possessor" (Brown 2003, 33)2. It is this striking conundrum, the relationships between a group of people and everyday objects that are at the same time valued and not valued, that this research begins to examine. These "useless", "meaningless" objects have been ignored or scorned, have in some cases totally vanished, yet in the nineteenth century were made in vast numbers, desired by people across the industrialising world and displayed proudly in whatever dwellings people with small incomes called "home".

This project was prompted by my discovery of a lack of research and publication looking specifically at these objects when I was writing my MA dissertation (Mills 2010). In this section I review the background to my research into miniaturisation and the mass-produced miniature within the context of an archaeological/historical investigation. Next I define the principal terms used in my research, before discussing the term "image" in its nineteenth century context. I follow this by discussing the important materiality of nineteenth-century "images". I then discuss the place of miniaturisation in the archaeology of the nineteenth century, and how it relates to the study of material culture: I link miniaturisation and mass-produced miniatures with scholarly thinking on things, actants, memories, playthings and the ecology of the home. I end the section by exploring "absence" as it affects my study.

Making sense of miniatures: an archaeological approach

My research project involves and informs archaeology. It looks at artefacts from the past — Judy Attfields's "rubbish, detritus and discarded things" (Attfield 2000, xv) —which is what archaeologists do, and attempts to 'make sense' of those objects. This is a widely-practiced activity: for example The Open University course in material culture is entitled "Making Sense of Things" (Anon nd).

Objects do not start out as non-sense. Some scholars claim that objects are a form of language, or at least possess a language that we can share. For example, in 2011 MOMA held an exhibition entitled Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (Anon 2011a) while Walter Benjamin famously claimed that things communicate "mental meanings" (Benjamin 1979). The 'language' of objects from the past might thus be initially experienced as mute, unintelligible, communicating nonsense (noise? static?) until the archaeologist (or historian) translates it into sense.

'Making sense' can also be defined as reducing uncertainty, which fits well with the idea of finding a mysterious object in an archaeological context and becoming more certain of its identification and meaning. Finally, we make sense of something by utilising our senses: as archaeologists we observe it, we touch it, very occasionally we taste and smell it and, rarely, we hear it3. I paraphrase Steven Feld (Feld 1996, 91) by suggesting that as things make sense, senses make things.

As a historical archaeologist, I concur with Norman Yoffee and Severin Fowles' claim that my chosen field, in analysing physical remains and not privileging elites, "provides important opportunities for the writing of counternarratives" (Yoffe and Fowles 2011). And in doing this, I am experimenting, as Douglass Bailey and Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal suggest, in creating alternative narratives in alternative ways (Bailey 2008a; Gonzalez-Ruibal 2008).

As a field technician, a "digger", who has spent much of his adult life finding things, I align myself with the archaeological posthumanists "who have taken the arguments of Bruno Latour to heart and have devoted themselves to the empowerment of things, to the fight against the tyranny of the subject, and to an archaeology that in no way privileges the Homo sapiens actor of the liberal humanist tradition" (Yoffe and Severin 2011). As such, I also aim to "de-familiarise" the recent past, engaging in a process of challenging and rewriting a little of what we think we know about the last 250 or so years (West 1999, 1). I am using this concept of de-familiarisation to question some of the assumptions and assertions made by archaeologists and others about the class of objects that are the subject of my research.

We tend to believe that people in the past often thought and acted in the same way as us, and, paradoxically, that they didn't. We can demonstrate definitively that nineteenth century people placed brick upon brick to create buildings identifiable as "houses" so familiar that we still echo their designs today. What was going on in the minds of those builders is, however, a mystery. Even when recorded formally at the time, those records were liable to be distorted by many external influences such as class, resistance, taste, politics, economies, religion and so on. We are therefore unreliable curators of the past, whereas objects simply and reliably exist, as material entities, things we can touch or see.

Because archaeologists have no way of knowing what lies beneath the surface until they excavate, and because archaeology is a non-repeatable experiment — "archaeology is destruction" (Wheeler 1954) — I had to embrace a level of risk as I faced the (virtual) surface on and beneath which perhaps lay the material of my research. As discussed in the Methods section, I am obeying Douglass Bailey's admonition to "go beyond" archaeology, to do rather than talk, perhaps create something unjustifiable and humble, and to stimulate uneasiness in my audience (Bailey 2013).

Paradoxically, Bailey's "unease and imbalance" seems to be the opposite of the certainty and objectivity that making sense of the past might traditionally require, yet this researcher of Neolithic miniatures advocates the subjective process of being aware of what our senses tell us as we examine these artefacts. He questions more "archaeological" interpretations by looking at, touching, holding and experimenting with manipulating objects (Bailey 2008a) as well as using our relationships with present-day miniatures and what they do to us to try to make sense of prehistoric artefacts (Bailey 2008b). Importantly he encourages his audience to participate in this process, rather than merely being the receivers of data, and he experiments with various ways of sharing his explorations. I attempt a similar engagement by accessing a variety of contemporary source material in my research and include that material as the Appendices of this thesis, so that my readers can share my exploration of relevant texts, images and even music.

Part of "making sense" might be the consideration of the continuity of miniaturisation since prehistoric times as a form of artistic expression. Miniatures are deliberate transformations of reality (physical or imaginary) into something that is intended to be experienced by and change the person who interacts with it. That these objects were mass-produced is, in the period of my study, by the by, for they were usually experienced and were meaningful singly or in small groups on the mantelpieces and shelves of 'ordinary' people.

Definitions: slippery meanings and small-scale things

Miniatures form a distinctive and familiar class of material culture, but everyone who researches miniaturisation has at some point to define what it is. Archaeologist D'arne O'Neill faced this challenge eloquently in her 2010 PhD thesis and is worth quoting at length:

Perhaps defining a miniature is a little like defining time. We all know with absolute certainty what it is until we try to define it and then its meaning seems to slip between our analytical fingers. However, a preliminary working definition of a miniature would need to include the elements of imitation, resizing and symbolism. A miniature has a relationship to a larger object which it imitates or copies as a smaller version of that object. As a result of the resizing, the function of the original object becomes transformed into a symbolic and representational one. This is represented either in a changed form, such as in toys which upon miniaturization become educative or play tools for children, or is maintained symbolically...The exact nature of the representation or symbolism is then provided by the particular cultural context within which the miniature is situated.
(O'Neill 2010)

In looking at models and figurines in prehistoric south-east Europe, Stratos Nanoglou, calling on Douglass Bailey, Bisserka Gaydarska and Lyn Meskell, declares that miniatures were "objects with a specific size, texture, colour, form, etc., which, when produced, used, and deposited in specific contexts, affected experience in particular ways" (Nanoglou 2015, 621). It is the ways in which miniatures affected the experience of those who interacted with them in the nineteenth century that my research explores.

The first challenge is that miniatures are defined by their size. Size as a concept is almost impossible to define since it is always relative: "There are no absolutes: 'small' and 'large' are relative terms" (Mack 2007, 49).


For the purposes of my research, I have defined its principal subjects in the following ways:

Miniaturisation is the representation of any object — natural, human-made or imaginary — at a smaller scale than its original.

A miniature is a small-scale representation of a "life-sized" original, real or imagined, created from any material, including stone, wood, metals, ceramics, plaster of Paris, paper, plastics and glass. The reduction in scale is usually approximate.

A model is a miniature that attempts to represent its original as accurately as possible, and at an exact proportional scale4.

A mass-produced miniature is a commercially-manufactured artefact made in a series of identical objects and sold for profit.

The nineteenth century is the period between 1780 and 1914, sometimes referred to as the "long nineteenth century" and also as the time of the so-called "industrial revolution".

While miniatures can be manufactured as two- or three-dimensional objects, my research focuses on three-dimensional examples5.

The "recent past" for my research is the period from the beginning of industrialisation (the late eighteenth century) to yesterday.

The present is that period during which this research was carried out, i.e. 2012—2016. My interest in the topic has continued however.

A toy is an object that is created to be used within play, both by adults and children. Some toys are mass-produced miniatures.

Bric-à-brac is a class of non-utilitarian decorative objects, mostly but not all manufactured, with no set theme, acquired to be displayed in the home. Miniatures are generally included in bric-à-brac.

A collection is created by the acquisition of a number of objects intended to be displayed or curated together, obtained and retained for reasons of sentiment, nostalgia, memory, novelty, display, identity, resistance, connection with childhood (real or imagined), spiritualism, status, aestheticism or investment, rather than the intrinsic function of the objects.

Imaginary miniatures

Susan Stewart implies that miniatures must represent actual or at least tangible originals (Stewart 1993, 60), but miniatures of imaginary originals (Greek gods and goddesses, fairies, angels and so on) seem to be so important that my research suggests that these should stand side by side with those of "real" originals, and that both communicate something of the thinking of their creators and owners. The fantastic is aligned with the real and "given 'life' by its miniaturization" (Stewart 1993, 60), so can be surely regarded to be as "real" as a miniature figurine of Wesley or a miniature revolver.

There are occasions when an ornament that represents something might be the same size, as or even larger than, its original (e.g. a small bird or insect). It is therefore, by my definition, not a miniature. However it may be displayed amongst and have similar or identical meanings as adjacent miniatures.

Some objects that I am referring to as "miniatures" represent imaginary (so far as I am aware) originals, such as fairies, which have no known size. Is an ornamental fairy smaller than, or larger than a "real" fairy? How tall is a "real" gnome? Garden gnomes, whilst very small imaginary "people", can be more than 10cm high. Is this smaller than, larger than or the same size as a "real" gnome? I have included these conundrums within the scope of my research, because they may be interpreted in the same way as "true" miniatures.

The people from below: objects of delight in "working-class" contexts

The answers to my research question are based on evidence from what I am calling "working-class" contexts. I have regarded "working class" and "the people from below" as interchangeable generalisations in seeking and collecting the nineteenth-century material that I have analysed, but, though applied to central elements, they are notoriously difficult to define, and perhaps impossible. To attempt to do so is to step into a quagmire. Even the term "from below" infers inferiority, ignoring identities that would proudly and stubbornly claim levels of superiority for, for example, the ideal of "the proud working man", "the artisan" and so on in performances of resistance to established hierarchies. Ironically, Karl Marx used the term "lowest sediment" to describe the poor6.

The label "people from below", though probably first used in the early twentieth century, was invigorated by the title of the article History from below written in 1966 by E.P. Thompson (Times Literary Supplement, April 7th, 279-80) which resulted in a movement that "saw historians shift their focus from topics such as great men, big wars and political elites to subjects that previously had been neglected like women, children, urban and rural poor, immigrants and ethnic minorities" (Anon 2008a). Its supporters were particularly interested in "popular culture" — the ideas of the mainstream. Jim Sharpe points out that researching "history from below" holds out the promise, and challenge, of recovering the lives of "ordinary" people, lives previously seen as too unimportant and insignificant to merit the attention of historians. Sharpe considers that the principal difficulties in dealing with "history from below", however, are: that there is a dearth of evidence; that "below" is a meaningless categorisation; that the people from below are usually defined by what they are not; and that resulting narratives can be distorted by their sources (e.g. court cases and the writings of social reformers) (Sharpe 2001, 26-27). Plus, of course, we immediately face the challenge of ascribing meaning to the term "ordinary".

Margaret Jacob comments on this difficulty, listing the use of "commoners", "folk", "the vulgar", "the lower sort", "the unlearned", "the illiterate", "the excluded", "the rabble". She suggests that: "ordinary people were to be ruled over, but [might] strive for political agency". She also reminds us that "ordinary people are above all conceived as the 'non...' — as involving something of a lack, or a weakness, compared to the elite's gifts and power" (Jacob 2013, 1-2). Jacob was writing about the seventeenth century, but this attitude was commonplace in the nineteenth century, and persists today. It is tempting to use "non..." as a convenient 'work-around', to borrow a computing term, in that those lives explored in this research might be described as "non-middle-class" or "non-elite", but this would necessitate endless further definitions. A Marxist-influenced definition might be "the dispossessed", but the majority of those who existed within the industrial revolution earned money, however precariously, because the system, based on capitalism, required and depended on their labour to function and grow.

The problem might be approached from the tangent of "culture from below". This is a concept "to describe the subculture or counterculture of certain excluded members of society who are economically disenfranchised or deprived of voice according to class, status or economic hierarchy...the concept was used to describe the neighbourhood culture of the working class in Britain, especially when discussed by Marxist critics and the early "culturalist" school within British cultural studies (Thompson, Hoggart, Williams, Hall et al.)" (Rimstead 2009). This again emphasises the difficulty of defining such a diverse group, (as well as Roxanne Rimstead falling into the trap of invoking the as-yet undefined term "working class") because while some might have been mute and/or disenfranchised, others, while equally silent, were, for example, successful artisans and entrepreneurs whose positions in hierarchies was simply the result of snobbery (e.g. the distaste among the elite for those involved in "trade").

"Working class" as E.P. Thompson pointed out in his seminal work The Making of the English Working Class, is not an "it", but rather a self-definition, if not always a conscious one (Thompson 1963, 10). For my project I suggest that it would be counter-productive to constantly hedge around and question the term "working class". It would not have been the way people at the time described themselves, nor was the term much used by contemporary commentators. There were the industrious classes, those employed to maintain and expand the industrial revolution. And there were the others, the unwaged, the poor. Mayhew calculated that in London there would have been approximately 1.5 million workers, a further 1.5 million part-time workers, and a similar number of people who worked occasionally or were unemployed. Any member of one of these groups could have bought and displayed miniatures that cost at most a few pence and often just a farthing.

For the purposes of my research some sort of label, however crude, needs to be applied to these under-recorded people to differentiate them from the much more accessible and popular 'middle class', that of the over-familiar bric-à-brac cluttered parlours, the mythical pantalooned piano legs and the aspidistras. The term "working class" is therefore utilised within this project as a shorthand collective term, rather than a closely-defined term, to describe a group of people for whom the purchase of a non-utilitarian decorative object involved the exchange of a significant fraction of their discretionary income. Their discretionary income was the money left over after paying for food, shelter, clothing and healthcare. This implies that the object had sufficient meaning to be valued, to divert money from something more "useful". It can therefore apply to a fairly well-off artisan to whom a shilling spent on a figurine to show off his/her good taste in the parlour as well as to an impoverished maker of artificial flowers who nevertheless feels she can spare a farthing to cheer her place up.

The objects that are the focus of this research were (and are) part of everyday lives of "ordinary" people. "Ordinary" is another convenient broad-brush description that is widely used, and I have done so occasionally to replace "working class" and avoid monotonous repetition. "Ordinary people" were, of course, far from ordinary. The description is both demeaning and devaluing. Although it may not have been recorded, other than the occasional reference in a census or the like, each "ordinary" person nevertheless lived a life that was unique to them, indeed was extraordinary. I am uncomfortable with "ordinary" because it implies a judgement, suggesting that "ordinary people" were less than extraordinary, were dull, uninteresting, and indeed its dictionary definitions reflect this. The wide use of the label betrays attitudes that have resulted in these individuals being poorly represented in the historical archaeological record, especially in the UK (Mills 2015). In my thesis "ordinary" simply stands in for "working-class".

Beyond my definition these people are linked by their voicelessness. They probably didn't have time to write much, and weren't encouraged to. That this is a great loss can be demonstrated by a small project in which I was involved:

I recently transcribed an unpublished and forgotten collection of 40 letters in Nottingham Industrial Museum, written in 1973, in which elderly people described "My first day at work"" memories of events that occurred at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century. Until I came across them, these hand-written letters had languished in a filing cabinet for 40 years. Almost all the occupations the writers described have long since vanished, and now those writers are dead, their only memorialisation their shaky handwriting and the set of digital files I created.

Our disregard for these scant records is changing, with the advent of projects like Writing Lives which promotes the Burnett Collection of Working-Class Autobiography7. Unless more previously unknown material is discovered, however, the amount of information that has been preserved is finite. In addition, for this project, the usefulness of working-class writing has been limited. Initial examination of a sample of the material indicates that people didn't often record their own possessions in detail. Their biographies are understandably mostly about events and people, rather than things.

History from below cannot awaken the dead. It cannot 'make whole what has been smashed'. But by placing the lives and agency of people most in danger of being forgotten in the centre of our regard, by filling the air with their stories, worries, loves, and tragedies, perhaps history from below can calm the storm blowing out of paradise, and give us a chance to rescue meaningful lives from the ever-growing pile of historical 'debris' and from the silences, forgetting, and revisions of modernity.
(Hitchcock 2013)

That a stirring of Hitchcock's "history from below" is especially necessary in the UK is suggested by a Google Scholar search I carried out on 22nd February 2016, using the term "archaeology of working class", which produced only five results that were not located in the USA or Australia in the first 100 returns.

"Images": what this meant in the nineteenth century

The small decorative miniature objects investigated in this project were commonly called "images" in the nineteenth-century English-speaking world8. This was reflected in the street cries of the itinerant sellers of figurines — "Buy my images!" "Images! Very pretty! Very cheap!"9

In his Dictionary of 1785, Samuel Johnson defined "image" as:

1. Any corporeal representation, generally used of statues; a statue; a picture.
2. An idol; a false god.
3. A copy; representation; likeness.
4. Semblance; show; appearance.
5. An idea; a representation of any thing to the mind; a picture drawn in the fancy.

(Johnson 1785)

The Online Etymological Dictionary adds to this:

C1200 "piece of statuary; artificial representation that looks like a person or thing", from Old French image "image, likeness; figure, drawing, portrait; reflection; statue", earlier imagene (11c), from Latin imaginem (nominative imago) "copy, statue, picture, "figuratively "idea, appearance", from stem of imitari "to copy, imitate". Meaning "reflection in a mirror" is early 14c. The mental sense was in Latin, and appears in English late 14c. Sense of "public impression" is attested in isolated cases from 1908 but not in common use until its rise in the jargon of advertising and public relations, c 1958.
(Online Etymological Dictionary)

According to Raymond Williams the earliest meaning of "image" was "a physical figure or likeness". The word was rooted in senses of idea, of copying and imagination. By the sixteenth century the "physical sense of image" had begun to be accompanied by the today more familiar "mental conception", and Shakespeare certainly used "image" in all its meanings. Recently there has been the advent of the use of "image" to describe what Williams calls "perceived reputation" (Williams 2014, 111-112).

An "image" would once have been more solid than the word would imply today. "Graven images", for example, were tangible objects, frequently three dimensional, things that could be both disapproved of and worshipped. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and almost certainly earlier, an "image" was most likely to be a three-dimensional representation, usually in miniature. Its relationship to both imitation and to imagine meant that it could be either an imitation of something real, or something imagined. It is therefore no accident perhaps that these three closely-related words — image, imitation (or representation) and imagination — run as threads woven throughout this project. This may lead to some confusion, after all one can have an image of an "image".

By the seventeenth century "image" could be something applied, like paint — "he's the spitting image of his father" doesn't imply that he's a three dimensional object, but that his external appearance is very similar to his father's. That the etymology of image also includes "a reflection in a mirror" is also important and will surface again in these pages, for self-image is hugely significant, as perhaps is borne out by today's popularity of the "selfie". It also could explain the popularity of the mirror over the mantelpiece. The growth of photography in the late nineteenth century probably encouraged evolution of "image" to describe exclusively two-dimensional representations.

Since miniature decorative objects could be figurines of humans, busts, small buildings, urns, bowls, "bow pots", bas-reliefs and medallions, the word "image" served as convenient shorthand. My exploration of "images", "image-sellers", and the people who displayed these three dimensional objects on their mantelpieces in the nineteenth century, demonstrates all the nuances of the word "image" as defined by Johnson. As essentially visual objects, "images" fit comfortably and significantly into a period that experienced, according to Jean-Louis Comolli, a "frenzy of the visible" (Comolli 1980, 121). The popularity of digital imagery in the present leads me to suggest that we are still very much enjoying that "frenzy".

Nineteenth-century miniature objects as archaeological artefacts

Archaeology is, of course, the discipline of things par excellence"
(Olsen 2003, 89)

Archaeology might be the discipline of things, as Bjørnar Olsen claims, but it has been selective of which things it focuses on. One of the principal reasons for carrying out this research was the distinct lack of archaeological and historical research specifically discussing the phenomenon of miniaturisation, and even less investigating objects that could be defined as "miniatures" and their significance in nineteenth century archaeological contexts. In the words of Jack Davy "it is rare...that they are meaningfully interrogated, despite recent efforts to engage with them more effectively as objects with the ability to embody complex ideas in ways that influence human society" (Davy 2015). As a ubiquitous phenomenon, one that expanded mightily in the age of mass-production, miniaturisation deserves the attention of those who get closest to the everyday lives of the people of the past, archaeologists (Mills 2015, 243).

Mass-produced ceramic and base metal miniatures have been found on archaeological sites in contexts dating from the nineteenth century to the present day. These sites are located in Europe and in countries settled by colonising powers. Their distribution is however almost certainly distorted by differing archaeological approaches and priorities. My own research is constrained by my singular working language and the need to focus on "Western" countries. Although many cultures have produced examples of miniaturisation, these were often craft objects rather than factory-manufactured products. Also it is certain that countries where miniatures were manufactured for export to Western markets in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as Japan, would yield examples of miniature artefacts in archaeological deposits. These are beyond the scope of my present project.

When nineteenth century artefacts have been written about, few have touched on miniaturisation as an important concept. Archaeologist Paul Mullins has written much about bric-à-brac, of which miniatures formed (and form) a significant element (Mullins 2001, 2004a, 2004b, 2006, 2011), but he has not tackled "smallness" and the meanings that can be attributed to the ubiquitous phenomenon of small-scale objects representing full-sized originals10. His justifiable assertion of the ambiguity of meaning of these "prosaic" things in a way avoids having to puzzle over their relationships with people. Eleanor Casella, in her important archaeological investigation at Sandhills, Alderley Edge, probably the best example of someone discussing the meanings of an assemblage of miniature objects in the UK, suggests convincingly that these particular artefacts were complex indicators of social status and individual behaviour (Casella 2004). But again the phenomenon of miniaturisation itself is not examined.

As Judy Attfield points out, to archaeologists, "rubbish, detritus and discarded things" are hugely valuable sources of information (Attfield 2000, xv). It is amongst these that miniature things are found and recorded, but these records tend to focus on description. While formal archaeological reports can be rather dry and dusty, there are some publications that take archaeological description and spin narratives around it11. But even in these scholarly yet accessible accounts of life in the recent past, miniatures appear to be relegated to a very minor role. These objects were present, and they were present at the heart of the home.

Miniatures of various kinds are found regularly by metal-detectorists and removed from their archaeological contexts. Some in the UK are partly recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (Portable Antiquities Scheme 2016) but because they are perceived to be of little monetary value, most are rarely properly recorded and merely appear by chance on detectorists' web sites (see Barford 2016).

Mass-produced miniatures as material culture

Miniature objects would almost certainly been amongst those "tawdry" objects that Simon Patten noticed in a "working man's home" (Brown 2003, 33). In the last 20 years interdisciplinary academic interest in material culture has grown significantly, and there is a plethora of material discussing and arguing over its theoretical background. In stark contrast, the place of mass-produced miniatures as an element of the material culture of the working-class home has rarely been touched on. Indeed although much has been written about working class people from historical and sociological perspectives, there seems to have been a dearth of research into the relationships between working class people and things.

Amongst archaeologists, Douglass Bailey has brought his alternative approaches to the study of prehistoric figurines and miniaturisation (Bailey 2008a, 2008b, Bailey et al 2010). Interest in miniaturisation is growing: the journal Pallas published The Gods of Small Things in 2011, and a special Miniaturization edition of World Archaeology was published in 2015, though both concentrated on prehistoric examples. Those few scholars who, rather than writing about material culture in general, have spent time thinking more deeply and specifically about miniaturisation and miniatures, for example Gaston Bachelard (Bachelard 1969, 1994), Susan Stewart (Stewart 1993) and John Mack (Mack 2007), have looked at these subjects from philosophical and poetic viewpoints.

Bachelard devotes a chapter of his book The Poetics of Space, to "Miniature". He introduces some concepts that occur again in the writing of others referred to in this review, such as the ability of miniatures to "detach [one] from the surrounding world" (Bachelard 1969, 161), to open up other worlds and to concentrate meaning: "values become condensed and enriched in miniature" (Bachelard 1969, 150). He introduces the idea that we have power over small things: "The cleverer I am at miniaturising the world, the better I possess it". Bachelard introduces the idea that by looking hard at a miniature, giving it "attention", more detail is revealed (Bachelard 1969, 159). Perhaps this is where the study of things in literature and archaeology produce differing results. Close examination of a mantelpiece miniature usually reveals a lack of detail. Making something smaller necessarily entails leaving out detail, introducing abstraction. It means that what is omitted is as important as what is included, because that forces the viewer to use their imagination, the importance of which Bachelard does stress. Bachelard is perhaps conflating miniatures and models. Many miniatures are quite crude representations because, I believe, their function is to provide the basis of an idea rather than a realistic, finely detailed small-scale copy.

"Detail" could also refer to the small-scale physical characteristics of the surface of an object — i.e. chips, brush marks, flaws, wear, damage, the minutiae of textures. These add material information (a fingerprint for example, or a manufacturing technique) and are often informative about the "life" of the object since it was made, but don't tell us much about the intrinsic meaning of that object.


It is important to consider scale when thinking about miniaturisation. The etymology of "miniature", which refers to the red pigment, minium, used by those creating tiny images within and around the initial letters of illuminated manuscripts (Pilz 2011, 11), implies a reduced scale — the image is a scaled-down representation of something, a scene, a landscape, or an animal, squeezed into a limited space. Bachelard includes the microscopic in "Miniature", but I would claim that, however small it is, a microscopic object is still full-sized. An amoeba is not a miniature, nor is it a small-scale version of something, it is simply a full-sized, very small, amoeba. The microscope merely renders its image gigantic. It would, in theory, be possible to have a miniature representation of an amoeba.

Perhaps the representation of microscopic things at large scales, gigantic objects (for example models in museums and electron micrographs) that are often awe-inspiring, entails the same effect as miniaturisation, but in reverse. Just as miniaturisation can bring us close to something big, so the gigantic can bring us close to, say, a bacterium. This mixing of miniaturisation and gigantism is also apparent when Bachelard mentions that Thomas Hardy wrote about moss representing a pine wood (Bachelard 1969, 161). Here the moss isn't regarded as a miniature representation of a pine wood. The writer imagines and transforms the moss into a large-scale, gigantic version. A "miniature pine wood" would be just that, tiny representations of trees, rather like miniature scenery on a model railway. Miniaturisation is physically irreversible. It is possible to reduce a gigantic object to its original size or even create a miniature of it. Enlarging a miniature back to its original size or creating a giant version of it would expose its lack of detail.

The potent miniature

John Mack's work, The Art of Small Things, focuses almost entirely on museum-curated objects that belonged to elites in the distant past, as one would expect, perhaps, from a British Museum publication. An art historian, Mack provides valuable insights into people's relationships with three-dimensional solid objects, rather than the rather literary approach of Bachelard. He discusses the inaccessible, but nevertheless imagined, interiors of miniature things, especially buildings (Mack 2007, 207). He writes of the "potency" of the miniature, and our use of our own bodies to measure their size. Mack accepts that "the smaller something is, the more child-like it seems to be" despite stressing that it is adults who make "the material things of childhood" (Mack 2007, 144) (and see below). Perhaps this implies that "child-like" is an adult construction, built from miniature objects that adults feel are appropriate for the creation of an imagined childhood and a nostalgia for something that didn't exist.

Susan Stewart also introduces connections between miniaturisation and childhood. She posits, for example, that the invention of printing coincided with the invention of childhood (1993, 43). Others, however, (for example Howard Chudacoff, 2007) suggest that the "invention" of childhood occurred somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century, long after Gutenburg and Caxton. The idea of childhood may well have been encouraged by the nineteenth century industrialisation of printing and the increased affordability of illustrated books depicting this new phenomenon (which at first was mostly limited to middle- and upper-class families).

Books may have also spread the childhood narratives that miniaturisation inspired in adult writers. Stewart also claims that "the toy" (i.e. miniature things) lends itself to private fantasy more than social play. The fantasy inherent in a miniature toy is an adult one (Stewart 1993, 57). Thomas the Tank Engine was the invention of the very adult Reverend W.D. Awdry (Awdry 1946) and adults purchase these toys, feeling nostalgia for a technology that only those born well before 1967 would have experienced in anything other than a museum or on a preserved railway12. The continuation of that fantasy involves a supply of adult-created objects that are presented to a child with appropriate identification ("here's a signal/truck/carriage/crane/track" etc.). Just as the invention of "childhood" and the increase in solitary play were mid-nineteenth-century developments (Chudacoff 2007) so perhaps were the miniature props, created by adults, that supported them.

That miniatures concentrate meaning, are meaning-rich, is at the centre of much of Stewart's thinking. For example Stewart considers that souvenirs, while expanding our experience, contract the world (Stewart 1993, xii). She notes that the reduced size of a miniature doesn't reduce its significance (Stewart 1993, 43). Souvenirs are often mass-produced miniatures and I would argue that miniatures, too, contract and concentrate both the real world and imagined worlds.

Stewart writes that "the miniature does not attach itself to lived historical time". Miniatures are very much associated with memory, with the memento, with the souvenir and with the celebrity, all of which are attached to moments in historical time which are fossilised by the miniature representation. Time can also be miniaturised: model railway enthusiasts run timetables appropriately speeded up to match the scale of their layouts, while time seems to pass more quickly in a miniaturised environment (Stewart 1993, 66).

While Stewart regards storytelling as a removal from everyday life (Stewart 1993, 9), I would alternatively suggest that the stories told by miniatures are part of everyday life, reflect it, remember it in the past and help to create it in the present and future. Many miniatures were (and are) tied to specific moments or periods of everyday life, as in the representations of celebrities whose marketability lasts only as long as they are (in)famous.

Miniatures as things

Human life consists of ceaseless and varied interaction among people and myriad kinds of things
(Schiffer 1999, 2)

Miniatures are both objects and things. Objects — lumpen, static — lurk, invisible, underground, where we archaeologists haven't dug them up yet. When we do, they are transformed by our attention (Bachelard 1969, 159) into things, "vivid entities" in political theorist and philosopher Jane Bennett's words, that expand beyond both their contexts and semiotics (Bennett 2009, 26). However because both "object" and "thing" are used interchangeably by writers and researchers, it is difficult to avoid mixing the two terms.

So important are Schiffer's interactions between people and things that archaeologist Christopher Witmore claims that "humanity begins with things" (Witmore 2007, 549). According to Bill Brown, however, we are accustomed to looking through things to get at what they tell us about ourselves rather than looking at things themselves, examining their "thingness" (Brown 2004, 4). While I want to look through miniatures at what they can tell me about the past in which they existed before they were discarded, I also want to consider miniatures as things rather than just objects because I agree with Bennett that "we experience [thing-power] every day" (Bennett 2009, 25).

Things with power

Non-archaeologists have occasionally recognised that miniature objects appear to possess a level of agency that could be described as power. John Mack suggests that: "to render ordinary things on an ever-reducing scale render them more powerful in visual terms" (Mack 2007, 6). This makes miniatures doubly-powerful, and perhaps goes some way to explaining why they are so much part of our lives, because they add the power of miniaturisation to their already-present thing-power.

The concept of thing-power has been persuasively promoted by Jane Bennett. She defines thing-power as "the queer vibrancy of allegedly "inanimate" or "inorganic" matter: its power to contest, compete, or ally with the individual and collective intentions, drives or impetuses of persons" (Bennett 2009, 24) and attempts to show that things are "actants rather than objects" (Bennett 2009, 31).

Stratos Nanoglou considers that "miniatures act upon us, before we can act, before we have the ability to act, and thus they set the terms by which action is possible before we can make a choice. Accordingly objects, miniatures, representations, figurines, pots, along with human bodies, animal bodies, etc., set the terms by which someone is recognised" (Nanoglou 2015, 621).

In a later lecture (2011) Jane Bennet wonders if thing-power might explain the "allure" of things that demand to be acquired, that can be regarded as part of oneself, that can take over and that can provide comfort. Although in the lecture Bennett was referring to the extreme behaviour of hoarders, I suggest that "thing-power" might explain some of the attraction for apparently useless miniature objects of doubtful quality and ambiguous meaning that people accumulated in small collections on their mantelpieces and shelves. These objects may provide comfort and, as Ball suggests, company, as well as being objects to which we have a deep attachment (Ball 1967, 450). Those made of resistant materials, may outlive us, giving us a sense of immortality, if merely by association, perhaps as part of the objects' material memories (see below). Those made of more fragile material may vanish, reflecting loss of memory and absence.

The social life of miniatures

Jane Bennett's contention that "thing-power" is dynamic, involving change, "the ability to shape-shift" (Bennett 2009, 28) echoes the changing values of miniatures that are at first commodified, then desired, then acquired, then treasured, then discarded, only to be re-commodified and once again desired and acquired. This is another example of "the social life of things", a concept pioneered by Arjun Appadurai, who wrote of the "circularity" and "trajectory" of things, and "things-in-motion" (Appadurai 1986, 1, 5) a significant departure from the rather static form-and-function anthropological approach to objects.

Supporting Kenneth Haltman's assertion that things are "culturally potent" (Haltman 2000, 2), the relationships between humans and things are seemingly endlessly fascinating, as can be seen from the popularity of TV shows such as The Antiques Roadshow, Hoarders, Extreme Clutter, Storage Wars, Seriously Amazing Objects and others, radio shows and linked exhibitions such as the British Museum/BBC's A History of the World in 100 Objects and the Smithsonian's 101 Objects that made America and a plethora of popular books inspired by the success of Longitude (Sobel 1995)13. All these entertainments involve gaze and performance, with the objects (which often include miniatures) performing on the same stage as the celebrity hosts—if the objects weren't playing their part, there would be no show (Hunt 1993, 297). The performance is "material culture".

Though they accept that artefacts can communicate meaning, Wilkie and Bartoy are doubtful that what archaeologists study can reveal "consciousness or self-identification" (Wilkie and Bartoy 2000, 756). I am going to suggest that miniatures are more revealing and do in fact tell us at least a little of what the people who bought them were thinking. If we discover a nineteenth-century ceramic figurine we know objectively that someone in the past experienced its form in a manner very close to ours. They would have seen its colour and shape and felt its texture and weight, and may have agreed with our identification of what it represented. Furthermore, more subjectively, we can share at least some of the double-entendre associated with a fairing14, or the jingoism of a figurine of Nelson, the patriotic feelings attached to a figurine of Victoria, the celebrity-worship of a figurine of the actress Madame Vestris15 or the cricketer George Parr.

The process becomes more challenging, but equally rewarding, when we are presented with a miniature cat or a representation of a Venus. Interpretation is likely to be less accurate than identification, but we potentially access more "soft" information than what is revealed by, say, the discovery of a utilitarian artefact such as a cooking pot. I apply Lubar and Kingery's term, "un-self-conscious creations", to miniatures in their being free from the restrictions of contemporary mores, though still communicating cultural and social thinking (Lubar and Kingery 1993, xvi).

Jacques Maquet claims that the meaning of an object is established by the group for whom it is relevant rather than its designer or commissioner (Maquet 1993, 35). Archaeologist Paul Mullins also considers that whatever the intrinsic meaning of a miniature might have been, its owners will have appropriated it and attached their own meaning(s) to it. The excavated artefact's meaning is ambiguous (Mullins 2000). The capitalist manufacturers (and therefore commissioners and designers) of a miniature ornament had to be sure that the object would sell in order to make money. This meant that they had to produce objects that would appeal to a significant number of people, would be desired and would reflect popular tastes. The objects therefore had to have some sort of intrinsic designed content/meaning to elicit that desire, even though the individual purchaser might then almost certainly either add to that meaning or subvert it.


When people engage with the miniature, they gain access to other worlds and alternative realities
(Boric and Robb 2008, 10)

The idea that people "engage" with miniature things implies a degree of symmetry. We are, according to Christopher Witmore, entangled with things, so mixed up with them that in his words "humans and non-humans should not be regarded as ontologically distinct, as detached and separated entities, a priori" (Witmore 2007, 546). Miniatures are things, and things, it seems, are more than dull objects — indeed they can be "sublime actants" (Bennett 2009, 25). The idea of a symmetrical archaeology, where things, though different, can be regarded as non-oppositional "beings" with humans, plants and other animals has been promoted by Michael Shanks (Shanks 2007) and Bjørnar Olsen amongst others (Olsen 2003, 88). This concept is important in the study of archaeological artefacts closely linked to people's thinking. "Archaeology is a representative act", and archaeologists witness and speak for the past (Shanks 2007, 591).

Unlike William Marquardt, who considers agency to be "the purposeful activity of individual human beings" (Marquardt 1992,104), Bruno Latour suggests that things both human and nonhuman can display agency and be actants, can do things, make a difference and produce effects (Bennett 2009, 33 n1). I would argue that the miniatures I study are indeed actants: they have intrinsic agency in that they alter the behaviour of those who interact with them.

Alfred Gell extends the concept to "art objects" (which I suggest could include mass-produced miniatures) theorising that they are "the equivalent of persons, or more precisely, social agents" (Gell 1998, 7), an agent being a person or thing that "causes events to happen" (Gell 1998, 16). Building on Gell's assertion that people "attribute intentions and awareness to objects" (Gell 1998, 17) it can be hypothesized that humans are part of a circular relationship, almost a partnership, with miniatures. A simple view would be that while being aware that they are lumps of fired clay, cast metal or moulded plastic, they nevertheless cause us to invest them with "life". Their "thing power" encourages us to animate them, and as a result the objects acquire a secondary agency that again influences our behaviour. As Steedman writes: "When the working-class interior is the object of the writer's desire, its multifarious bric-à-brac gleams and glitters in this way...the objects...ranged on the mantelpiece and towering up in the shelves of the open cupboard...curve themselves outwards (or inwards)...present their interior as well as their exterior to the world" (Steedman 1998, 25).

Gell hesitates to consider that a child's doll is a "self-sufficient agent" but is a manifestation of the child's own agency and that what we experience is the "co-presence" of an agent (Gell 1998, 20). However it might be claimed that the doll is actually an actant, and that the child reacted to the doll's intrinsic agency by giving it "life" and treating it as if it were a miniature person. The doll participates in a symmetrical relationship, in ways that are often so powerful that we sometimes desire to relive them as adults. "In [a child's doll] and through it a person is made into a subject" (Levi-Strauss 1966, 23).

Miniatures as memories

The miniature typifies the structure of memory, of childhood, and ultimately of narrative's secondary (and at the same time causal) relation to history
(Stewart 1993, 171)

Susan Stewart's assertion that miniaturisation materialises memory, childhood and history is an important one. In the past, one use of the term "memory" was to describe the wear and tear suffered by an object or clothing. Scuffs, wrinkles and chips memorialised past events (Attfield 2000, 145). Judy Attfield goes on to assert that interest in "the material culture of memory" has been growing as archaeologists and historians realise "the importance of the meaning of things in relation to time" (ibid).

Sharing the mantelpiece or the shelf with other objects, I suggest that miniatures are often mnemonic objects (deliberately or unconsciously chosen). They trigger memories, are surrogate memories and also require memories to be meaningful. Susan Stewart quotes Bergson, who claimed that perception actively requires memory (Stewart 1999, 17). Objects help us to recollect, they "stimulate remembering, not only through the deployed mnemonics of public monuments or mantelpiece souvenirs, but also by the serendipitous encounter, bringing back experiences which otherwise would have remained dormant" (Kwint 1999, 2). I would add that, importantly, they can be the stuff of memories, as is shown by their function in the "memory boxes" that function to replace the absent memories of those suffering from dementia and Altzheimer's disease (Wegerer 2014).

According to Nicolette Mackovicky, Walter Benjamin "regarded not only memory, but also history, as materialized in objects" (Mackovicky 2007, 291). The importance of material memories is a constant throughout my research, and I echo Mackovicky in seeking not only what people remember "but how they remember and the relation between the two" (Mackovicky 2007, 291, my emphasis).

It has been suggested that figurines, miniatures, stimulate thought and particularly thinking about oneself in the world (Boric and Robb 2008, 10). That thinking process is complex, but I agree with Boric and Robb that because miniaturisation forces the designer to omit detail and introduce abstraction it prompts the viewer to use their imagination to fill gaps (Ibid). What is absent is often memory, intangible thoughts from the past, some that belong to us, the viewer, more that belong to the possessor, for whom the miniature is a memory, and some that the object brings with it (its content or agency).

Miniatures are effective tools for both possessing and sharing memory because we are in control. Miniaturisation exaggerates the viewer — we are by default gigantically powerful when compared to even the fiercest, wildest miniature (Cartier and Lew 2006, 95). Miniatures are also powerful because they have latency, allowing us, as controllable elements of a partnership, to invoke our own memories. We, the all-powerful viewer, are free to add the miniature to our own individual narratives that, according to Stewart, are linked to "nostalgic versions of childhood and history" and result in a "diminutive, and thereby manipulatable, version of experience" (Stewart 1993, 69).

Because we can instantly grasp the "totality" of the miniature, Claude Levi-Strauss considered them to be easier to comprehend "less formidable, simpler" than what they represent (Cartier and Lew 2006, 95). Douglass Bailey suggests that what is absent from a miniature is more important than what is present, adding to the object's role as "visual illusion" (Bailey 2008b). As, until the moment in the present when we look at a miniature, our lives exist in the past and as memories, they join Susan Pearce's objects that "tell the stories of our lives" (Pearce 1992, 47). In analysing and interpreting these objects, we can use memories as "a key to unlocking the cultural belief" that is embedded in them (Prown 2000, 18).

Commemoration, an important element of memory, was and is hugely important, and many miniatures commemorated significant events, either in the lives of those who owned them or more widely, such as coronations, heroes battles and wars (see Figure 1). After pointing out that one in ten decorative objects in "plebeian households" were "commemorative plates, mugs and jugs marking national and family events" Kwint suggests that these objects acted as a sort of concentrated commemoration for people whose lives left little time for contemplation (Kwint, 1999, 5). Like many other objects, such as cars and computers, with which we develop relationships, because of this link with memory miniatures can be suffused with emotional value (Newitz 2007, 90).

Finally, Stewart writes that: "the miniature typifies the structure of memory, of childhood, and ultimately of narrative's secondary (and at the same time causal) relation to history" and she explains that what a miniature represents is always something in the past: "the miniature comes into the chain of signification at a remove: there is no original miniature; there is only the thing in 'itself,' which has already been erased, which has disappeared from this scene of arriving-too-late" (Stewart 1993, 171).

Miniatures as playthings

a toy is simply the starting point of narrative
(Stewart 1993, 47)

It seems natural to associate small things with small people. Archaeologists, rather lazily, do it all the time — a recent example (Figure 2) is from the (excellent) Christchurch Uncovered blog (Garland 2013). The "narrative" that Stewart suggests is inspired by a "toy" is, however, not a simple one. The frequently-evoked and appealing narratives of grubby children playing with toys in the mud and dust of the nineteenth century are comforting fantasies. "For many nineteenth century children, particularly those from poor homes or rural areas, commercially produced toys were virtually unknown luxuries. This still remained the case by the end of the century even after three decades of rising prosperity" (Brown 1980, 181).

"At present, archaeologists tend to catalog all miniature objects as "child-related", writes Stacey Camp. She goes on to warn that: "assuming that small objects are naturally "children's" toys poses a twofold danger. First, it projects a monolithic idea of scale and size onto artifacts. Second, and more importantly, miniature objects were often used to discipline marginalized subjects by reformers and colonizers. Pintsize tea sets, house-keeping equipment and porcelain dolls were used as disciplining agents through which "improper" behavior could be corrected and refashioned" (Camp 2008, 10).

When dealing with small things from the past, there are many examples of a confused mix of cuteness, syrupy sentimentality and adult nostalgia. For example a 2007 Williamsburg Foundation exhibition, A child's eye view, explored "how children re-create the adult world from their own perspective through play and toys" but demonstrated the all-too-common confused thinking around the meanings of these artefacts. Its introduction stated that "dollhouses, toy trains and other playthings bring back fond memories of childhood". These memories are possessed by adults, but the "exhibit designers kept their young guests in mind when creating this display. Objects have been installed at the viewing height of a 10-year-old child". A ten-year-old in 2009 would have no memories of these objects. And nostalgia must have been painful for those adults with bad backs. (Molina 2009).

There is also evidence that children didn't regard "toys" in the same ways as adults. Majewski and Schiffer suggest that in the nineteenth century miniature tea sets were designed with the latest designs to inculcate the fashion into the minds of children (Majewski and Schiffer 2001, 45). I wonder if, since it was adults buying the tea sets, whether, as happens today, the designs appealed more to them than to the children. Christopher Geist quotes Jane Carson who, in her book Colonial Virginians at Play, claims that: "second to their dolls, the favorite toy of little girls was the tea set." This toy offered the colonial girl an opportunity to play at the enormously popular adult pastime, the tea ceremony, which had captivated Americans from the wealthiest to the lower classes" (Geist 2008). Laurie Wilkie raises the likelihood that although adults may have intended that miniatures would combine pleasure and education in the ways of the adult world, children often imposed their own agendas on these objects (Wilkie 2000, 110). It is also unlikely that many working-class families had the opportunity or inclination to indulge in tea ceremonies.

Archaeologist Bly Straube, admits that "It's very hard to tease out the presence of children just looking at the material culture...we find things like toys, but what we would call the culture they would be things that could be traded to the Indians or little amusements for adults" (Hunter 2009). I suggest that dolls' limbs represent an example of Straube's "little amusements for adults". They are a frequent find on a wide variety of archaeological sites. Paige Peyton, researching the ghost towns of Utah for her PhD, found that "it is not uncommon to find toys/miniatures in this site type/vintage [abandoned mining towns in Utah (roughly 1870s-1920s)], even though they are focused on mining. The most common of these is the porcelain/bisque dolls leg...go figure" (Peyton 2010, pers comm). Miniatures, including ceramic dolls' legs, have also been found associated with mining settlements on the other side of the world in Otago, New Zealand, though here, whilst early camps were exclusively male, Peter Petchey has identified documentary evidence that indicates some children were present in second-generation settlements. (Petchey 2010, pers comm). This, together with the finding of miniatures in pioneering locations (e.g. Majewski and Noble 1999, 299) reminds us that these objects will be present in the archaeology of even the most down-to-earth settlements, and that their meanings might be more complicated than being merely playthings.

It is easy for archaeologists to fall into the presence-of-children trap. In an investigation of Minneapolis "slums", though from documentary evidence "no children were noted in the Bridgehead Site" John McCarthy still went on to write that those artefacts he identified as child-related were "among the most evocative, creating a strong link to the past residents of the project area". He used this assumption to postulate that life in the area may not have been as bad as previously thought, presumably imaging children happily playing amongst the mostly-industrialised contexts (McCarthy 2001, 149). The "toys" found in working environments could have been owned by adults as mementos, keepsakes, trifles, charms or for the sake of nostalgia. In reporting finds from the Los Penasquitos ranch house, California, Christina Mirsky insists that toys were evidence of children, despite oral history that stated that "the children...did not have dolls or toys of any kind" (Mirsky 1993, 179).

This use of the presence-of-children to cast a happier light on archaeological contexts also occurs in Australia, where Grace Karskens uses "a great collection of manufactured toys, many of fine and unusual quality: dainty tea sets, pretty dolls with glass eyes, lead figures such as horses, soldiers, boats and carriages, playing pieces from games, ceramic figurines and child-sized jewellery" (Karskens 2001, 76) to suggest that in The Rocks "slum": "children were not regarded by working people as 'non-human' and unimportant at all; clearly they held modern cultural notions of childhood as a phase separate from adult life, a time of play and indulgence as well as education". Jenny Porter and Asa Ferrier enlarge on "the presence of dolls, marbles, toys, and writing slates" in Melbourne's Casselden Place to conjour up "both solitary and group play", educational activities and "moderate indulgence" of children (Porter and Ferrier 2006, 388, 389, 392).

However one of the themes running through my research is adult relationships with "child-related" things, and, while questioning her apparent low opinion of "curiosity", I echo Sally Crawford's passing on of Joanna Derevenski's warning that "the identification of objects as playthings in fact only serves to move them away from the mainstream discussion of the other artefacts into a different (lesser, marginal) status: 'its identification as a toy relegates the significance of the artefact to the level of a curiosity'" (Crawford 2009, 59). So "the possibility that any miniature artefact found in an archaeological context, even when associated with children, had adult, non-toy functions, has to be given serious consideration" (Crawford 2009, 61). Kathryn Karp supports this: "adults use toys to play with themselves, to demonstrate their own status, to bond with or coerce children, to encourage desired behaviours. Some "adult" toys are identical to "children's" toys" (Karp 2009, 120).

Perhaps archaeologists are too dismissive of what these objects might tell us. Anne Yentch and Mary Beaudry complain that "often [toys] are given short shrift as archaeologists try to put together the "big picture", using artifacts to delineate the path of "man's" progression and its impact on cultural form" (Yentsch and Beaudry 1992, 427). We need to re-examine our analytical attitudes to small things. Crawford suggests that toys, rather than just mere objects, are fluid, context-related concepts, which makes "current attempts to classify objects as toys on the basis of their shape, size, cost or assumed function redundant" (Crawford 2009, 62). Even if a "toy" has begun existence as something intended for children it often joins Jane Bennett's "shape-shifters" in becoming a curated object of memory, writes Crawford. "Artefacts made to be toys may turn into relics or memorials to childhoods, and, as such, become part of the material culture of the adult world" (Crawford 2009, 63), while Karp notes that "adults utilize toys to demonstrate their own status through their children's belongings" (Karp 2009, 120).

None of this is to deny that children may have been present, and may have played with the objects. In the nineteenth century, however, the concept of "childhood" as a separate entity from "adulthood" was only just developing, as Charles Orser points out. "It also appears that we are unsure about the transition from childhood to adulthood as shown by archaeology rather than historical sources, especially amongst poorer people" (Orser 1996). Howard Chudacoff argues that "age only becomes a meaningful form of classification at the end of the nineteenth century" (Sanchez-Eppler 2005, xxxi). Chudacoff states that in the nineteenth century "toy" meant something frivolous or inconsequential: "an object that could amuse an adult or child but was not exclusively reserved for children" "...dolls, carved soldiers, animal figurine, miniature houses...mostly intended for ornamental purposes and belonged to families of means"(Chudacoff 2007, p 26).

Miniatures in the ecology of the home

To lose a home is to lose a private museum of memory, identity and creative appropriation
(Hecht 2001, 123)

A display of miniature objects, what Grace Karskens describes as a "great array of sentimental figurines of poodles, cottages, lambs, ladies, and angels sheltering little children under their wings" (Karskens 2001, 76), things with concentrated agency, would be important elements in the private museum that Anat Hecht suggests was the home. Other than in impersonal locations such as museums and galleries, most miniatures of the past were, and are, displayed, or if hidden, cherished, in homes, or at least places where people live.

Whilst many of these locations can be defined as traditional "households", others are more complex. Miniatures have come from brothels and bordellos (e.g. Sandpoint, ID), taverns (e.g. Bladensburg OH, Christchurch New Zealand, Detroit MI, Dauphin PA, Half Way House NV. Le Breton Flats, ON), isolated ranches (e.g. Ranchos de Taos Plaza, NM, Kinchega NSW) and mining camps (e.g. Otago, New Zealand, Buxton IA), places not so readily identified as "homes". Normally displayed indoors, miniatures are sometimes located outside, as garden ornaments, and, less commonly, they are placed on graves16. Some miniatures, particularly those made from base metals, were meant to be carried on the person.

For Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi the home is more than just a shelter. It is a place where familiar, tangible things act to organise and steer the lives of their owners (Csikszentmihalyi 1993, 25). Those possessions were, in Deborah Cohen's words, endowed with moral and artistic qualities. If, as Cohen claims, the nineteenth century middle classes were closely associated with their belongings, were using possessions to define their individuality and status in a world that was becoming more uniform, I suggest that what some called the "industrious classes" would have also used objects to reflect identity (Cohen 2006, xi).

The symbolic home

Is to live in a place to take possession of it?
(Perec 1997, 24)

One of the reasons that miniatures were and are popular is that a lot of symbols can be displayed in a small space (Mullins 2000). They were also easily portable, so at a time when many impoverished people frequently moved between cheap rented properties, could carry the idea of "home" from place to place. It is likely that a few familiar, much-loved ornaments helped to make each temporary dwelling a home, providing the security of "possession". Susan Digby believes that "placement" of what she calls "meaning-rich" objects, with which their owners associate memories, acts to establish identity within a space, making it "their place" (Digby 2006, 184).

Deborah Cohen writes that there is a common belief that "our homes reflect our personalities" which is part of our inheritance of "the materialistic world the Victorians made". However, she continues, although we recognise their "apparently insatiable, and to our eyes quixotic, demand for things" we haven't really explained why "they stuff[ed] their houses full of objects" (Cohen 2006, x). This lack of understanding is even more glaring when we attempt to look back at the working classes. While in a middle-class area "a typical parlor overflowed with store-bought, mass-produced objects...shelves and small stands overloaded with bric-à-brac and purchased mementos" (Cohen 1982, 293), we have little information on the parallel material culture of the "lower" classes. As Jesse Lemisch points out, "The history of the powerless, the inarticulate, the poor has not yet begun to be written because they have been treated no more fairly by historians than they have been treated by their contemporaries" (quoted by Ascher 1974, 331).

"Precious, useless objects"

Diana Maltz mentions Octavia Hill's account of the woman she is attempting to help who worries that her "bits of things" will look worse in better lighting (Maltz 2006, 18). While Maltz suggests that the owner is holding her ground in contrast to Hills' claim that she was not aspiring to higher standards, for me her reaction speaks of a wish to display those "bits of things" to their best advantage, since they are a reflection of her self-identity. Her neighbours probably felt the same about their own bits of things. For we learn from unthinking contemporary writers that working-class people had "precious, useless objects", treasures that they caused middle-class do-gooders much frustration because they would rather the "poor" used the money to purchase more utilitarian items (Malz 2006, 211).

Nicolette Mackovicky, citing Burikova and Parrot, states that "recent work on those who occupy a marginal role within the family home or are forced to live within an institutional framework show how crucial personal objects are to the maintenance of personal identity in surroundings that represent the agency of others" (Mackovicky 2007, 289). Asa Briggs would agree, writing that "people who owned very few things of permanence could hold them especially dear" (Briggs 2003, 3).

The popular concept of the parlour as a place of external display is now frequently questioned. "Only in exceptional circumstances do neighbours actually see the contents of each other's homes" (Clarke 2001, 30). Indeed for working-class people, pressured by "the scrutiny and intervention of State, government and social reformers" (ibid, 24) the home more often than not became a place of refuge. Working-class housing in the nineteenth century was often regimented and patriarchal, with rules and regulations. Small things would allow people to "appropriate, interpret and generate agency through their standardized spaces" (Clarke 2001, 29). As Alison Clarke continues, "the interior worlds of these households, although they may remain to all intents and purposes physically private, are used as projections of very real relations with the larger external world" (Clarke 2001, 29).

"Gaston Bachelard [argued] that the chief benefit of a house was its function as a place to dream of wide horizons through its protection of the daydreamer" (Digby 2006, 175). In the lives of those whose opportunities were severely curtailed and who had precious little spare time in which to daydream, those wide horizons could be represented by a few small things on the mantelpiece. Judy Attfield suggests that material culture is "a mediating agency — the means through which individuals relate to each other within a household and beyond it to the world at large" (Attfield 2000, 153).

Absence: the archaeology of nineteenth-century working-class homes

We remain quite ignorant about the daily lives of large sections of the population (and especially their material culture) outside the writings of social commentators.
(Matthews 1999, 157)

Keith Matthews, researching "subcultures and marginalized social groups" in Chester (Matthews 1999, 158), refers to the "wounds" inflicted on that city by recent redevelopment (Ibid, 155). In most cities around the world, thousands of working-class homes that once housed urban working classes were destroyed in large-scale clearance of "slums" (for example Leeds, Figure 3). Figure 4 shows a densely-populated area of Nottingham that was destroyed, unrecorded, by the construction, in a vast cutting, of Grand Central Railway's Nottingham Victoria station (Figure 5), itself destroyed only 50 years later, to be replaced by a shopping mall. This scenario could be replicated many times in all industrialised parts of the world.

This wholesale destruction is similar to that which archaeologist Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal suggests is a marker of "supermodernity" (Gonzalez-Ruibal 2008, 247). Gonzalez-Ruibal restricts supermodernity to the twentieth century, but I would claim that the enormous changes and destruction, often repeated, that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, mean that the term could be expanded include the nineteenth century. Middle- and upper-class homes were rarely destroyed in such large numbers, even by wartime bombing (which was usually concentrated on industrial areas, where nearby closely-packed working-class housing became collateral damage) and usually survive to this day.

Contexts of absence

The archaeology of the nineteenth century, especially in urban areas, is therefore almost by default that of working-class dwelling and associated buildings and features such as privies and rubbish pits. It was this disappearance, and the creation of so many of what Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal calls "abject" contexts (Gonzalez-Ruibal 2008, 248) as well as what might be called contexts of absence, that enables me to confidently claim that the archaeological contexts I access during my research are "working-class".

Although most working-class homes went unrecorded it is nevertheless possible to suggest that they were immersed in material culture. Figure 6, from the German-language version of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, is a mid-nineteenth-century representation of the interiors of New York dwellings that were considered unfit to be lived in. Intended to show the horrors of tenement life (it depicted "Murder Alley") the illustration shows some 58 rooms with fireplaces, stoves and mantelpieces, on which stand a variety of objects. The rooms also include clocks, pictures and furniture. These are not wealthy homes, but they show significant amounts of material possessions.

Sadly, until the 1990s archaeologists in the UK paid scant regard to physical remains of the nineteenth century. My own excavation experience in the 1960s, 70s and 80s agrees with that of Keith Matthews, who asserted in 1999 that many archaeologists at the turn of the millennium still disregarded and destroyed nineteenth and early twentieth century deposits that they assumed were simply "disturbed" or "overburden" (Matthews 1999, 157). As a result our knowledge of the everyday lives and material culture of working-class people is often limited to "the writings of social commentators" (Matthews 1999, 157 and Mather 2013). However recent archaeological work in London (Jeffries and Hicks 2004, Jeffries 2007), York (Harrison 2011), Alderley Edge (Casella 2004, 2010), Chester (Matthews 1999) Birmingham and Manchester has shown that the archaeology of the recent past can richly enhance our knowledge of this period.

In the colonised world the value of the archaeology of the recent past has been more readily accepted (Matthews 1999, 156), perhaps because in these countries archaeology is more clearly divisible into pre-contact and post-contact periods, the archaeology of indigenous peoples and that of life since the arrival of settlers. Even here though, the archaeology of the nineteenth century was under-valued until relatively recently. For example, Neal Ferris points out that it wasn't until the growth of cultural resource management in the 1980s that nineteenth-century domestic sites in Ontario changed from "being dismissed as irrelevant to research and so much 'recent disturbance', to being a legitimate part of the Ontario archaeological record, worthy of research, conservation effort and proponent expense" (Ferris 2009, 3). In the US, as late as 1997, some archaeologists regarded nineteenth century sites to have "minimal research potential" (Anzalone, Stumpf and McManamon, quoted by Baugher and Klein, 2001, 3). There was often a circularity of argument, with sites being regarded of little importance because little was know about them, therefore they were not investigated, which resulted in a lack of knowledge and thus their apparent lack of import. Susan Lawrence and Peter Davies were still able to write, in the introduction to their 2011 book An Archaeology of Australia since 1788, that the existence of post-colonial archaeology surprised most people (Lawrence and Davies 2011, 1).

Absence: the fragile materiality of "images"

Who knows but what the plaster of Paris images now peddled out by Italians will be unearthed by some archaeologist 4000 years hence and gravely called idols worshipped in this day and age of the world?
(The Saline County Journal, Kansas, May 26th 1892)

When I began this project I assumed that I would be principally focusing on familiar material recorded in archaeological excavations or in curated collections. As my research continued, and on coming across the Plumtree Court mantelpiece, it became apparent that there was a class of decorative object that, because it was significantly less resistant than fired ceramics, had not survived post-discard archaeological conditions. Realising I had stumbled across an area of material culture into which little research had been carried out, I further investigated these miniature objects, which had been manufactured from plaster of Paris.

Sadly, the optimism of the anonymous writer in The Saline County Journal was misplaced, and these objects have rarely lasted for 100 years, let alone 4,000. I think we can assume that plaster of Paris objects were rarely if ever worshipped as "idols", but the objects were important enough at the time to "survive" virtually — in nineteenth-century illustrations, artworks, popular writing, newspapers, poetry and song. Indeed this contrasted with a marked absence of contemporary information on ceramic material.

The narratives "spoken" by plaster of Paris decorative objects, the manner of the manufacture and distribution and their place in domestic contexts came to dominate my study of nineteenth-century domestic material culture. As a result, the concepts of miniaturisation and the miniatures discussed in this section should be assumed to apply to plaster of Paris miniatures as much as to those ceramic and base metal miniatures17. Those examples of miniatures recorded and commented on in previously-published work are, however, almost without exception made of the more resistant materials. It is this previous non-appearance of a significant class of objects that makes my research both exciting and important.


Last updated 20th April 2020


Figure 1

Miniature artillery shell with crest of Haltwhistle, Northumberland
Figure 1: Crested ceramic miniature artillery shell commemorating the First World War. Author's collection.

Figure 2

Screenshot of blog entry
Figure 2: "The presence of children". Section of Christchurch Uncovered blog.

Figure 3

Photograph of back to back houses being demolished.
Figure 3: "Slum clearance" of back-to-back houses in Leeds. Note the "vertical archaeology" — traces of demolished staircases left in plaster on the remaining walls.

Figure 4

Map of central Nottingham before construction of Great Central Railways Victoria station
Figure 4: Working-class housing in Nottingham before the construction of Nottingham Victoria Station.


Figure 5

Map of central Nottingham after construction of Great Central Railways Victoria station
Figure 5: Working-class housing obliterated by Nottingham Victoria station.

Figure 6

Illustration showing cross-section of tenement houses
Figure 6: Die Tenement-Hauser in New-York. Mid nineteenth century. New York Historical Society. (For detail see Figure 61).

Footnote 1

Thomas Osler, "glass trinket maker", in 1824 (quoted by Brown 1980, 180).


Footnote 2

Simon Patten (1852-1922) was a US economist and academic.


Footnote 4

Oliver Pilz suggests that it is not possible to differentiate between miniatures and models at least in ancient Greek examples (Pilz 2011, 16) because some tiny but detailed ships do not replicate full-sized originals.


Footnote 5

For example, photographs and prints.


Footnote 6

Capital, Volume 1 1867.


Footnote 7



Footnote 8

In some languages the equivalent word for "images" was used (e.g. Dutch beelden)


Footnote 9

See Chapter 7.


Footnote 10

See Chapter 10


Footnote 11

See for example Casella 2004; Lukezic 2010; Petchey 1997, 2004, 2007, 2010; Praetzellis and Praetzellis 1992a, 1992b, 2004, 2009; Shackel 2011, Spector 1993; Steedman 1998.


Footnote 12

See The Key


Footnote 13

While miniatures appear early in the timeline, none from the recent past are thought worthy of inclusion.


Footnote 14

Fairings were low-cost, usually crude and often bawdy ceramic figures given as prizes at funfairs.


Footnote 15

For Madame Vestris, see Chapter 10.


Footnote 16

See Chapter 10


Footnote 17

And by extension stone, ivory, bone and wood miniature artefacts.