Pocket Globes: The Whole World in Your Hand

A tiny globe, painted mostly green, displayed in an open box.

A pocket globe that turns on a spindle, housed in a protective box, from the collection of Jay I. Kislak. Photo: Shawn Miller. Geography and Map Division.

Pocket globes, the colorful, world-in-miniature creations of 17th- to 19th- century cartographers, were never a serious venture. Charming trinkets, 3-inch art objects for a gentleman’s desk. A child’s toy. A bygone artifact of the age of exploration.

“They were the kind of thing you’d keep on your desk next to the inkwell and blotting paper,” says John Hessler, curator of the Library’s Jay I. Kislak Collection.

He’s standing in a storage room of the G&M Division, a large, clean space with horizontal filing cabinets for maps and prints. Set out on top of one of these is a collection of 74 pocket globes, given this month to the Library by Kislak’s family and the foundation he left behind. It was, to the best of the Library’s knowledge, one of the largest private collections in the world. It’s now part of the national library.

The dozens of tiny globes, crafted between 1740 and 1875 in Europe and the U.S., are made of everything from ivory to papier-mache. The largest can fit in the palm of your hand. The smallest, in the center of your palm. There are some on stands and others in plush round boxes. Some feature a tiny globe covered in vellum, with continents and countries painted in delicate colors.

The exteriors of their encasing boxes are made of shark skin. Open other boxes and you’ll find the interior – curved, to accommodate the globe – painted with constellations, as if the night sky were a sphere of its own. Some turn on tiny spindles; others are fixed in place.

The lettering and artwork on the globes reveal the world as it was understood in earlier centuries. Photo: Shawn Miller. Geography and Map Division.

The donation brings the total number of pocket globes in the Library’s collections to nearly 100, an extraordinary size, as Kislak was a prodigious collector. His collection at the Library of Mesoamerican art, artifacts, rare books and manuscripts – more than 3,000 items in all ­– dates from around 2000 BCE to the 21st century.

The pocket globes are a British creation, believed to be first made by mathematician and printer Joseph Moxon in 1673, according to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, part of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. While globes are believed to date back 2,000 years to the Greeks, the oldest surviving one (the Erdapfel, or “Earth Apple”) was made in Germany in 1491 or 1492. Famously, it did not include the Americas.

Moxon started making his miniature globes, about 3 inches in diameter, more than 150 years later, when the curvature of the Earth and its land masses were much better understood. The little globes reached their peak popularity in the late 18th century.

They were not serious scientific objects but artistic ones, with the continents and countries outlined in different colors, complete with place names, tiny paintings of fanciful animals or zodiac signs in the ones with constellations in their shells. Finer ones, made of ivory, were likely “status symbols for wealthy gentlemen,” the museum notes, a desktop ornamentation in a proper library that would have shown a taste for fine art in the sciences. Simpler models were toys for children, perhaps to show how the globe spun.

Today, anyone can buy a tiny globe, made of rubber or plastic, things that only cost a few cents to make, the geographic world a known entity. This collection of pocket globes is a reminder of an earlier time (not all that long ago) when the complete planet was something bold and original to consider; something that was a marvel to be able to hold in the palm of one’s hand.

Dozens of tiny globes stand on a table.

Dozens of pocket globes from the private collection of Jay Kislak, recently donated to the Library. Photo: Shawn Miller. Geography and Map Division.

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