Ralph Mills

Objects of Delight

1: Introduction

When you make things small, special things happen

(Bailey 2013)

In this work I shed new light on the phenomenon of miniaturisation

Decorative miniature objects played increasing roles in the lives of people from the late eighteenth century onwards. My study locates and examines these ornamental miniatures, important examples of mass-produced bric-à-brac, in the homes of nineteenth-century "industrious classes", in order to learn what "special things" happened there and what these objects might reveal about people who lived in those contexts.

Mass-produced miniatures1, small-scale three-dimensional representations of full-sized, real and imagined, objects, were manufactured in large numbers in workshops and factories as minor products of the 'industrial revolution'. Despite their popularity at the time, they were referred to only occasionally by nineteenth-century commentators, and mentioned rarely in contemporary fiction and non-fiction. A few can be identified in paintings, engravings and photographs of unpretentious domestic interiors. Some have been discovered on archaeological sites around the industrialised world, while others survived to become familiar today as highly-valued, curated 'antiques' or 'collectibles'. Those that were less robust or less valued have, it seems, been "forgotten". Rarely highly regarded at the time by arbiters of taste, and equally rarely appreciated since by historians and archaeologists, mass-produced miniature objects are the principal elements of this study of material culture and of the importance of miniaturisation.

"Strange objects enough": miniature objects in working-class contexts

When nineteenth century social reformer Octavia Hill bustled into one poor woman's dark and dingy "underground kitchen" and offered her bright and cheerful alternative accommodation, she was taken aback to be rebuffed with the words "my bits of things won't look anything if you bring them to the light" (Hill 1875, 40). Such was the power of "bits of things" that even in the direst of circumstances, they meant something positive to their owners. This mysterious relationship between humans and prosaic objects is fascinating, and is important to investigate. It caught the attention of some observers at the time: "C.B.A.", writing in George Godwin’s magazine The Builder, tells us that "always to be found in the room of the poorest and humblest, are what are termed 'chimney ornaments'. Strange objects enough. What sort of pleasure or mental delight they can give it would be curious to inquire; they are never of the smallest possible use" (C.B.A. 1870, 402–403).

My goal was to uncover evidence that adds significant detail to our limited knowledge of the lives of what was at the time the largest sector of the populations of all industrialising countries, building on my previous research (Mills 2010, 2015). The majority of the contexts in which mass-produced miniatures would have occurred and/or have been found can be broadly classified as "working class"2, or at least can be associated with "ordinary" people, those who fall within the classification of being "of little note" (Scott 1994, 3). The homes, workplaces and environments inhabited by nineteenth-century "industrious classes"3 have, until recently, been regarded by many as unimportant and neither worth preserving nor recording. They have been destroyed by subsequent development or by "slum clearance"4, unlike the more highly-valued, in social terms as well as financial, homes of the middle and upper classes. The material culture they contained, the things that made up their "object worlds"5 is therefore poorly known.

This absence leaves a yawning gap that I feel it is important to attempt to fill. I have explored two ways of doing this. The first was to search out and utilise the words and images left by people who lived in the nineteenth century — not those written by historians, but those recorded at the time by journalists, by activists, by poets, by illustrators, by caricaturists, by artists, by musicians and lyricists, by unknown officials. The second was to adopt the role of what Michael Shanks and Ian Hodder called an "inventor":

Discovery is invention. The archaeologist uncovers or discovers something; they come upon it. An inventor may be conceived to have come upon a discovery. Discovery and invention are united in their etymology: invenire in Latin means to come upon, to find or invent. Invention is both finding and creative power. The logic of invention, poetry and the imaginary is one of conjunction, making connections
(Shanks and Hodder 1995, 11)

Therefore, as an "inventor", using my practices of archaeology and writing, I use my imagination to connect scraps of evidence in order to create "stories" that will give what Stephen Riggins calls a "flavour" of nineteenth-century reality (Riggins 1994, 115).

The value of miniature objects to archaeologists and historians

Culture is neither act nor artifact, but we can discover information about culture by working back from the acts and artifacts which are available for our scrutiny
(Beckow 1982, 116)

Though the nineteenth century experienced an explosion of Steven Beckow's "acts and artifacts", until recently the archaeology of the that century was routinely ignored6 in Britain and Europe , and artefacts have been either not recorded or cast aside, perhaps apart from one or two 'curiosities'. The situation in colonised countries is a little different, for there the nineteenth century has, since the 1970s, more often been recognised as the beginning of major urban growth and of settler societies, and the sites of "slums" and similar unpretentious locations have been excavated and recorded more frequently7. In addition, many of the artefacts I have identified were so fragile or so little valued that they do not occur in archaeological deposits, and an examination of surviving evidence requires a forensic and inventive approach.

Archaeology does not (usually) have the ability to interact with and question living people except when encountering material within indigenous societies, but has instead to deal with objects and their contexts, the things with which humans interacted in the past and their temporal and physical locations. Starting with, but going beyond, an archaeological approach to miniatures, my study is neither a cataloguing nor simply a social history project, but one in which I interrogate miniaturisation and miniature objects to establish as much as possible about an area of nineteenth century material culture. Jack Davy states that a miniature object is "an iconic resemblant of a prototype known to the intended audience" with whom it is deployed as "a tool of suggestion" (Davy 2015). It is my challenge to extract meanings from the miniature versions of a range of prototypes and what they suggested to people in the recent past.

In order to achieve these objectives, I use resource-based research methods, exploring object worlds, informed and enhanced by more experimental activities, using writing, photography and interaction with contemporary mass-produced miniatures. I also incorporate the material culture methods proposed by McClung Fleming (1982) and Jules Prown (2000), and my approach is also heavily influenced by the thinking of archaeologist Douglass Bailey (2006, 2008a, 2008b, 2010, 2013).

Serendipitous research: exploring virtual resources

In this study I make extensive use of a serendipitous8 research methodology (Fine and Deegan 1996) that I define as an adventitious exploration of mostly-online databases, archives and similar resources in a manner analogous to archaeological "field walking". In this procedure a ground surface is methodically surveyed but all resulting discoveries are in a sense "accidental", are located on a two-dimensional surface, and one "find" is likely to lead to others by their proximity. My virtual "field" is the worldwide web, and to use a horrible but appropriate cliché, "I let my fingers do the walking"9.

In field walking, a system of location and measurement is usually applied, lending a degree of rigour to the activity. Similarly, in virtual "walking" across the surface of the Internet, a level of control can be utilised (for example standardising search terms, extending the search to only the first 100 records and so on). However, because of the interconnectedness and much-folded nature of the web, this is problematic, in that a single record can link instantly to thousands of others. The nearest I can get to visualising this is that it is if one were walking across a field in Yorkshire, in Russia, in Arizona and in New Zealand at the same time, and simultaneously peering into storerooms in museums that contain material previously found in those fields, while turning the pages of 150-year-old newspaper. This open-ended and open-minded approach frees me from the logistical limitations of research based on physical resources as opposed to their virtual equivalents, and led to my being able to make significant discoveries in Britain, Italy, France, Holland, Germany, Russia, North and South America, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

The material culture of miniaturisation

I hoped to add significant detail to a number of areas of material culture. There is, for example, almost no published material specifically focusing on the phenomenon of miniaturisation linked with mass-produced ornamental objects produced since the late eighteenth century. Most archaeological and historical thinking on miniaturisation has concentrated on prehistoric material, and even here the amount of published research is limited in both scope and imagination and does not match the importance of the subject. Published discussion of those miniatures that have been discovered in nineteenth century archaeological contexts has been generally limited to their recording and cataloguing. Where a more detailed approach has been made, this stands isolated, and my research will assist in the process of identifying and collecting material from around the world10. This will encourage cross-border analysis and comparative interpretation for the first time.

I have previously written about the interpretive and analytical value of mass-produced miniatures (Mills 2015) and I continue to encourage archaeologists and historians to recognise the importance of the messages that, when interrogated, these artefacts can communicate about people in the recent past. I also address some of the interpretive challenges that miniatures raise in archaeological contexts, such as the often-suggested presence of children and domestic gender roles. I therefore aim to provide additional interpretive tools for future archaeological projects, enabling archaeologists to at least consider additional scenarios when dealing with small things.

Plaster of Paris

As my explorations progressed I came across the existence of miniature objects manufactured using plaster of Paris. These have not generally survived11 to form part of the physical archaeological record. I have also discovered that at the time they were better known, or at least written about and illustrated more frequently, than tougher artefacts such as the ceramic Staffordshire figurines that we are familiar with today. I found that these absent plaster of Paris objects nevertheless have the potential to add disproportionate amounts of information about the lives of their working-class owners, and I therefore shifted my focus to investigate them and the "object worlds"12 in which they existed.

Information provided by the study of nineteenth-century plaster of Paris decorative objects can be applied to more robust objects. A plaster of Paris figurine of, say, an actor, almost certainly shared "meaning" with a ceramic or bronze representation of the same individual. That the ceramic and bronze versions were increasingly expensive led to their presence being limited to middle- and upper-class interiors and their acquisition taking place in shops rather than the street. The "meaning" on the other hand was independent of its setting. It was the same actor, famous for the same reasons. And what my research has shown is that there was far more contemporary knowledge of those objects at the bottom of this hierarchy of materiality.

I worked to increase our knowledge of the ways miniatures were designed, manufactured, promoted, traded and sold in nineteenth-century industrialising countries. Armed with what I learned, I discuss the importance of some extremely numerous miniatures, for example, Staffordshire dogs and figurines of Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as the more mysterious, such as so-called "Frozen Charlotte" figurines. In attempting to meet Douglass Bailey's challenge to "go beyond archaeology" (Bailey 2013) my work adds to the development of alternative methods to traditional excavation in order to obtain and share information about the everyday lives of 'ordinary' people in the recent past. By a natural extension, I hope that this exploration will also influence thinking about present-day miniatures.

Mini-me: my involvement in this study

I am very much present in and part of this study (Figure 1). I justify this as presenting an individual reflection of a general human relationship with miniaturisation. As I explain below, this relationship begins with the sense of sight I share with other humans and the manner in which my eyes view the world in miniature and my brain manipulates that information. As a sighted person I cannot escape a direct physiological involvement with miniaturisation. This basic relationship is compounded by a life-long awareness of and interest in the miniature. As someone who's creative practice is writing, I begin the results of my studies with a series of narratives — "encounters" — that start with my childhood acquisition and adult rediscovery of a miniature dustbin lorry13. I end this study with two "tales" that pull together a little of what I have learned.

Pat Thompson, discussing academic writing, calls this approach a "personal narrative" and explains that it has three purposes: to locate the researcher in the project so that examiners can see how the researcher's life might influence the work, to show how the work "arises from the personal life or professional experience of the researcher" and to lay "ground work for a claim of professional knowledge" (Thompson 2016). As someone coming to the project with professional backgrounds in both field archaeology and writing, these purposes fit well within my methodologies.

Last updated 23rd February 2020

A miniature statuette of the author beside a Staffordshire figurine of Queen Victoria
Figure 1: A resin "mini-me" miniature of the author, alongside a ceramic miniature of Queen Victoria (author's collection). Height 18 cm.


These notes appear as footnotes in the original text.

1 "Miniatures" also can refer to small-scale works of art, often commissioned portraits, that were popular from the sixteenth century until the rise of photography. They were usually the property of elites, and do not form part of this study.

2 I discuss the thorny challenge of using the term "working class" below.

3 A term often used by nineteenth century writers, social organisations and pamphleteers (e.g. Lancaster 1803).

4 "Slum" is a contentious term, and "slum clearance" is politically and socially charged. I discuss this below.

5 See Chapter 11.

6 As an archaeologist in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, I was complicit in this.

7 Although nineteenth century material has been given more attention in the New World, archaeologists have still often applied cut-off dates (typically 1850) to their recording. Later material has also often been regarded as “curiosities” rather than the potential source of important information.

8 Robert et al (2009, 26) state that "browsing and being alert to serendipitous discovery can substantially increase the yield and efficiency of search methods".

9 A slogan used by trade directory Yellow Pages in 1962.

10 "The world" is limited in this research to those countries involved in the industrial revolution. Other countries such as China, Japan and India had long-established traditions of miniaturisation that are beyond the scope of this project. It is also biased towards English-speaking countries, though as much material as possible in Italian, French, German and even a little Old Dutch and Swedish has been accessed.

11 A few of these artefacts, usually identified as "chalkware", have survived as curated "antique" objects, and because of their scarcity attract significant and sometimes huge prices at auction.

12 See Chapter 11.

13 See Chapter 2.