The Mighty Miniature

As children, many of us assume that the larger the package, the better the present, right? I believed this until my eighth birthday, when the largest gift box contained… a cat litter pan. (A relative thought it an appropriate gift, as my parents had recently allowed me to adopt a kitten.) It was then and there I realized a bigger box doesn’t always indicate a better gift.

Margaret Woodbury Strong, The Strong’s founder, would probably have agreed that smaller items are often best, as she remains known in part for her vast collection of miniatures. As a child, Margaret traveled the world with her parents, both avid collectors. Her father loved coins, while her mother favored 19th-century Japanese objects d’art. During these travels, Margaret learned the benefit of collecting miniatures, since the smaller the items, the more she could fit into her luggage. As an adult she recalled, “I was allowed to carry a small bag to put my dolls and toys in, and to add anything I acquired on the trips. Consequently, my fondness for small objects grew.”

Margaret certainly wasn’t alone in her appreciation for tiny objects. For centuries, people of all ages have been fascinated by miniatures, although the reason behind the fascination remains unclear. In his article “The Fascination of the Miniature,” author Steven Milhauser surmises that miniatures simply charm us as diminutives of familiar objects. Furthermore, they don’t inspire fear the way some large-scale items do (imagine standing before a T-Rex skeleton). Milhauser’s theory seems fitting among adults, particularly those who collect items such as thimbles, souvenir spoons, or pins, or who enjoy furnishing dollhouses and miniature rooms, but what about kids? Children have long enjoyed miniatures, which raises the question; do children enjoy miniatures purely because the objects are little or simply because they’re more proportionate to small hands in this adult-sized world?

Kids have long been drawn to playthings that are small enough to hold in a hand or hide in a pocket, including Noah’s ark play sets, Schoenhut’s Humpty Dumpty Circus, and Fisher-Price Little People. During the 1980s, Micro Machines and Polly Pocket both enjoyed widespread fame. The latter can still be found at your local toy store, although Polly’s grown just a bit taller over the years. More recently, Squinkies have taken the toy market by storm. These wee, gummy vinyl figures average less than an inch in height and come in a variety of colorful forms depicting almost any popular character you can envision—animal or human—ranging from the Disney princesses to the cast of Star Wars (as you might imagine, the Squinkies version of Darth Vader is far less intimidating). But beware! The accessories that accompany these itty bitty creatures are considerably larger. For instance, if you plan to purchase the Squinkies Adventure Mall Surprize as a gift, you’ll need a standard size shopping cart to carry it out of the store and a large roll of wrapping paper because this play set will not fit in any gift bag. I’ve tried.

For as long as I can remember, miniatures have fascinated me, but I’m inclined to think my own interest stems from nostalgia more than anything else. As a child, I lovingly admired a menagerie of tiny glass animals my grandmother displayed on her windowsill, an image that still springs to mind whenever she’s mentioned. Not long after she died, I received the tiniest of gift boxes. Inside lay a small glass pig—my favorite of all the animals—crafted of pink glass with a perfectly curled tail. The tiny swine brought a smile to my face and could only be described with one word: charming. This treasured gift served as further proof that little things really can have a big impact.