Honoring Julian Edison

Julian Edison with his miniature book collection.

Julian Edison, who passed away last May, was an incredibly influential supporter of Washington University Libraries. Not only was he a generous donor who created a large endowment to fund the work of Special Collections, but he was also an avid collector of miniature books and gifted many rare and beautiful volumes to the department. To honor Edison and his support, Special Collections has been renamed the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections.

We are celebrating this name change by displaying a number of Edison’s miniature books in an exhibit we are calling “Julian Edison: A Giant in a Miniature World.” You can view this exhibit in the display case directly across from the Special Collections entrance.

Image from the exhibit, Julian Edison: A Giant in a Miniature World. A to Z of Small Creations: People, Presses, Publications by Dorothy A. Yule (Miniature Book Society, 2017).  Washington University Libraries Julian Edison Miniature Collection

Julian Edison’s Life and Legacy

Edison was born in St. Louis in 1929. After obtaining his undergraduate and Master’s degrees from Harvard University, he returned to his home city to become the chairman of his father’s shoe company, Edison Brothers’ Stores, a company that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch named “one of the most continuously profitable St. Louis-based companies during the late ’70s.” He was very involved in the St. Louis community, and will be remembered for his generosity and commitment to supporting education and the arts. He helped to found the Associates of St. Louis University Libraries and served on many boards in the St. Louis area, including The Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the St. Louis Art Museum boards.

A Big Collector of Little Books

Edison was an avid reader and book collector. He began collecting first editions of Cervantes’ Don Quixote while he was still a student at Harvard. Knowing his love for books, his wife Hope gave him a miniature set of Shakespeare’s works for a first anniversary gift, initiating a passion that led him to purchase the Percy Spielmann collection of over 800 miniature books and reference materials.

Hope Edison’s gift to Julian Edison of a set of 40 volumes in a revolving case containing Shakespeare’s plays. (Glasgow: David Bryce, 1900).  Washington University Libraries Julian Edison Miniature Collection

The cover of a miniature almanac from the Washington University Libraries Julian Edison Miniature Collection

As his collection grew, Edison quickly became a fixture in the miniature book world. He compiled a reference library about the books he collected and made sure to share what he learned with others through articles, lectures, and exhibitions at Washington University and other institutions. In 1965, Edison began Miniature Book News, a magazine about miniatures for other collectors. He also co-wrote with Anne Bromer on the history of miniature books. Edison’s passion for miniature books and his scholarship created pathways that took miniatures from a collector’s hobby to a respected academic topic.

A page from the miniature almanac.

What is a Miniature Book?

A silver-plated miniature from the Washington University Libraries Julian Edison Miniature Collection.

To be considered a miniature, a book needs to be less than three inches in any dimension, but some are much smaller than that. The tiniest miniature book on record can fit on half of a poppy seed! Miniature books are attractive both as talismans and practical references that can be carried with you at all times. Of course, they are also just fun to look at, which is why in our current exhibit you will see many with intricate bindings and cover art.

Edison on Exhibit

The winner of the “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” miniature bookbinding contest. Part of the Julian Edison Miniature Books Collection.

Edison’s support allowed Washington University Libraries to display a number of exhibits on miniature books, including a student-curated exhibit Shakespeare in Miniature in 2016, the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death. Edison also curated an exhibit for the book You Can Judge a Book by Its Cover, which featured a book binding competition. Artists from all over the world contributed bindings of this miniature, some of which are on display in our current exhibit. Edison continues to support the libraries through an endowment he created during his life. This endowment allows Special Collections to add items to the collections for teaching and display.

A binding from the “You Can’t Judge a Book By It’s Cover” contest.

Today, Edison’s comprehensive collection of miniatures ranges from medieval manuscripts to modern books and includes books in various languages collected during his travels. Examples of the collections currently on display include reference books, great works of literature, religious works, and books in unique bindings.

A binding from the “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover” contest.

For more secondary resources on miniature books, you can check out Julian Edison’s Resources on Miniature Books.

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.