From Pliny to Petrarch: A Short History of Collecting Autographs

An Ancient Obsession

In ancient times, the autographs of great men were regarded with reverence. The Athenians considered the original manuscripts of their poets the chief treasures of their city, their cultural patrimony, and displayed them in their temples. Aristotle collected manuscripts and maps, and formed the first considerable library of antiquity as well as a museum of natural objects.

Aristotle's own manuscripts are perfect examples of both the perceived value of manuscripts and the fact that secretarial autographs are an ancient problem indeed. Aristotle died in 322 BC leaving his papers to his successor Theophrastus, who in turn willed them to one Neleus. Neleus took the writings from Athens to Scepsis, where his heirs let them languish in a cellar until the first century BC, when Apellicon of Teos discovered and purchased the manuscripts, bringing them back to Athens. When the Romans under Lucius Cornelius Sulla occupied Athens in 86 BC, he carried off the library of Appellicon, complete with Aristotle's papers, to Rome. There they were published by philosopher Andronicus of Rhodes, who, while reviewing them, determined that most did probably not represent works which Aristotle himself prepared for publication, but appeared to be notes of his lectures taken by his students.

The legendary library at Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC, but was enlarged by the genius of his successor, Ptolemy I, who in 306 BC began collecting the works of the greatest Greek scholars of the time, in order both to educate his people and to start a "universal synthesis" of knowledge. He happened to be living during one of the most intellectually creative periods of humankind when Greeks were writing the books that would become the foundations of Western philosophy, mathematics, science, medicine, history and literature. It comprised perhaps as many as 700,000 manuscripts – the whole corpus of knowledge accumulated by the ancients  – many of them original autograph manuscripts in the hands of the authors. Acquiring the works of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydidies, Sophocles, Euripedes, Hippocrates and Euclid – just a few of the geniuses who were either hard at work when Ptolemy was collecting manuscripts or not long dead – ensured that Ptolemy's library quickly became a magnet for intellectuals. The Ptolemys had the world's first fund to acquire autographs and it was virtually unlimited. The city elders of Athens were deceived by Ptolemy III into letting him borrow original manuscripts of their notable men, such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, when Ptolemy sent them a load of silver as collateral. Ptolemy kept the originals and sent the copies back, allowing the city to keep the silver, a sure sign of his collecting fever and the prestige of owning such treasures at the time. This library was the first manuscript institution in the sense we would recognize today.

The Romans loved to display antiquities and deposited important manuscripts in their temples, where they were often on exhibition. And while there is no record of an autograph shop on the Appian Way, we do know that Roman notables collected manuscripts. The Emperor Hadrian, ruler at the very height of the Roman Empire, was such a collector, housing his manuscripts as well as his Greek statues and extensive library at his villa in Tivoli. Cicero is said to have collected autographs and the poet and playwright Pomponius Secundus, a friend of the elder Pliny, did collect them. He must have been interested in the Roman republic, as he is known to have owned letters in the hand of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, crucial figures in the history of the republican era who had lived two centuries before him. Pliny himself had a collection valued at about half a million dollars in today's money, which he obtained from the consul Musianus, who according to Tacitus published fourteen volumes of his treasures. The elder Pliny was not merely a collector of autographs but made the earliest known comments on their rarity, remarking that the letters of Cicero, Virgil and Augustus Caesar were not uncommon, but that those of Julius Caesar had become very rare. This latter remark is enlightening because it indicates that people appreciated letters as items of interest worth having, for if they were considered unimportant, they would never have become rare nor would their status have merited Pliny's mention.

The elder Pliny passed his autograph collection on to his nephew, Pliny the Younger. The situation that led to the younger Pliny coming to inherit the collection is remarkable – both Plinys were eyewitnesses to the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD, and his uncle died trying to evacuate the inhabitants. At the time, both Plinys were living at the elder's villa in the town of Misenum, across the bay from Pompeii. It is best to let the Pliny the Younger speak for himself. "On 24 August, in the early afternoon, my mother drew his [my uncle's] attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had been out in the sun, had taken a cold bath, and lunched while lying down, and was then working at his books…My uncle's scholarly acumen saw at once that it was important enough for a closer inspection, and he ordered a boat to be made ready…As he was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascus whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat. She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate…He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone. He was entirely fearless…Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain…He was able to bring his ship in…Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night..By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out…They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of failing pumice stones…however, after comparing the risks they chose the latter…As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths…they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamp. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate on the spot the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous. A sheet was spread on the ground for him to lie down, and he repeatedly asked for cold water to drink. Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense, fumes choked his breathing by blocking his windpipe which was constitutionally weak and narrow and often inflamed. When daylight returned on the 26th – two days after the last day he had been seen – his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death." It would be nice to think that the last books Pliny senior was looking through were his autograph albums.

Suetonius saw autographs of Augustus and Nero while researching his book The Twelve Caesars, and his mention of autographs in that work may be the earliest use of the term in a publication. He also related seeing a surviving autograph letter of Julius Caesar in which he requested better training for gladiators, and comments that Augustus Caesar "never divides his words, so as to carry his letters which cannot be inserted at the end of a line to the next, but puts them below the other, inclosed by a bracket." Nero, Suetonius relates, liked to underline words for emphasis. These  will prove key pieces of information should I be called upon to authenticate a letter of either Emperor.

There is nothing that more completely illustrates the catastrophe to civilization that was the fall of the Roman Empire than the utter disappearance of the original records of antiquity. It has been said that everything was ruined that water could drown and fire could burn. Not a single autograph in the hand of ancient Greek or Roman notables, not one manuscript so carefully preserved in the Classical period, not one book from the library at Alexandria, has survived. The manuscripts that we have are copies rarely older than the 6th century AD and more often belong to the 9th and 10th centuries. In the Middle East and Egypt, some ancient letters and documents have been found, preserved by circumstance and the arid climate. However, with one possible exception, none of these are in the hands of people either mentioned in the Bible or otherwise known to history. That likely exception is Simon Bar Kochba, leader of the last Jewish revolt against the Romans that occurred between 132 and 135 AD. In the 1960's, while looking for more Dead Sea scrolls, several letters written in his name during the revolt were discovered in caves. Although there is no way of knowing whether he or an aide actually penned them, from the tone they were quite possibly written by Bar Kochba himself, which would make his the earliest surviving notable autograph. His autograph may have survived but his cause did no; the revolt ended in disaster and the Jews were exiled from the land of Israel for 2,000 years.

The Fallow Ages

Cassiodorus is a hero to learning yet few know his name. He lived from about 488-575 AD, in the wake of the fall of Rome, when some small forms of Roman civilization remained. He served as consul under Ostrogoth Emperor Theodoric, then under Theodoric's young successor, Athalaric as praetorian prefect for Italy, effectively the prime ministership of the Ostrogothic civil government. Cassiodorus was a writer and kept copious records and letterbooks concerning public affairs. At the Gothic court, his rather mediocre literary skill seemed so remarkable that, whenever he was in Ravenna, significant public documents were entrusted to him for drafting. In his retirement Cassiodorus founded an important and influential monastery and his writings turned to religion. He also established a library where he attempted to bring Greek learning to Latin readers and preserve texts both sacred and secular for future generations. To do this, he not only collected as many manuscripts as he could, he also wrote treatises instructing his monks to copy Classical texts, both human and divine, and told them how to do so accurately. It was thus under his influence that, through the long Dark and Middle Ages, patient monks filled their days and evenings carefully transcribing the remaining meager and disintegrating manuscripts of antiquity. We owe so much to them and their labors. The library of Cassiodorus was lost eventually, and with it the collecting of autographs, at least in the West, closes for over 700 years. Although some official records survive from this period, we find no evidence of collecting or general interest in manuscripts.

The Light of Knowledge Rekindled

The Renaissance was a period of revival when Europe awoke from the sleep of a thousand years and the study of the Ancient World was pursued with a degree of enthusiasm that still reverberates today. It was from the dawn of this period that we date the earliest beginnings of the modern taste for collecting the autographs of great men and women. Petrarch, the 14th century Italian scholar, poet, and humanist, was the prime initiator in the recovery of knowledge from the writers of Rome and Greece. To him belongs the credit for first embarking on the search for ancient manuscripts, a passion that he passed on to his friend, Bocaccio. Petrarch's inquiring mind and love of classical authors led him to travel, visiting learned men  and searching monastic libraries everywhere for classical manuscripts. He personally discovered the Institutes of Quintilian (a Roman treatise on the art of oratory that constitutes an exhaustive encyclopedia of Roman educational practices), and in 1345 made a startling discovery – a collection of Cicero's letters not previously known to exist. This led him to decry the neglect of manuscripts in the millennium since Rome fell. "Each famous author of antiquity whom I recover," he wrote, "places a new offence…to the charge of earlier generations, who, not satisfied with their own disgraceful barrenness, permitted the…writings that their ancestors had produced by toil and application, to perish through insufferable neglect. Although they had nothing of their own to hand down to those who were to come after, they robbed posterity of its ancestral heritage." Petrarch went a long way toward reversing that neglect. Under the influence of Petrarch and the movement he inaugurated, religious orders began to value and preserve the original manuscripts of their founders and distinguished members, often keeping them in the same cabinets as relics of the saints.

In the Renaissance, one of its chief financiers, the leading banking family the Fuggers, collected manuscripts. Oddly enough, so did Savonarola, the fiery opponent of the Renaissance who led Florence for four years and carried out the Bonfire of the Vanities, in which items associated with moral laxity – mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures, gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women's hats, and the works of immoral and ancient poets – were burnt in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria.

For Friendship's Sake

The earliest known album was compiled in 1466 and proved to be the ancestor of millions upon lillions of albums to come later. However, the practice of keeping an an autograph album only became established in earnest after a Bohemian squire compiled one in 1507.  The album was called an "album amicorum" or "book of friends," and the point was to obtain the autographs of friends and acquaintences, and frankly, to show who you knew. By the mid-16th century it had become fashionable for students and members of the gentry, particularly in Germany, to keep these albums. In the books of students, professors as well as fellow students made their contributions to the collector's pages, and some of the albums contain inscriptions by major figures and scholars of the day (they contain, in some instances, the only extant autographs of the great scholars of the age). Some have illustrations by professional artists; Rembrandt drew "Simeon's Ode' in the album amicorum of one Jacob Heyblocq in 1661. Travelers also kept the albums and used them not merely to obtain mementos but as to collect letters of introduction to present to future persons at upcoming destinations along their route. Thus, some albums are replete with lengthy letters written to secure aid for the album owner. The impetus for these collectors was therefore in part utilitarian; the value of the assembled signatures was in their ability to open doors, not intrinsic in the handwriting of the individual signers. The practice of keeping these albums had become common throughout Europe by the 17th century. King Charles I of England maintained one which eventually became a prize possession of King George III.

Autograph Collecting Reborn

In the 17th century, the concept of collecting autographs and manuscripts, neither for the purpose of salvaging antiquity, nor for friendship or convenience sake, but for interest and historical passion, was resurrected after perhaps 1300 years by French minister of state Antoine Lomenie de Brienne. He amassed a huge collection of 340 large volume of significant manuscripts, some of them contemporary, and numerous others followed suit. In time, King Louis XIII would obtain the de Brienne collection and make it the basis of the Royal Library. In England, this was the century of the great antiquaries, and some of them, such as Evelyn and Ralph Thoresby, began to arrange the letters of their eminent friends and to see the historical value of the papers of the day. Elias Ashmole, who avidly collected manuscripts later in the century, bequeathed a priceless collection of them to Oxford University.

During the 1700s, interest in this avocation spread to persons of leisure throughout Europe, a number of whom assembled collections of correspondence and literary manuscripts written by the great men and women of history and letters. The focus at that time was on monumental figures from the past; John Milton was an appropriately famous literary subject, and any number of Continental royals were also suitable targets. Autograph collectors then had two justifications for their activities: historical purposes (to preserve the original manuscripts of an important writer or politician), or to showcase the collector's social status (while there did not exist a large economic market for autograph letters and manuscripts, to have access to them meant that you were a respected, cultured, and well-connected figure). Sir Richard Phillips, who started collecting late in the 18th century and rather extravagantly liked to claim to be the first collector of autographs in England, amassed reams of precious manuscripts. His claim was not totally off-base, however, as he was indeed the first person perhaps anywhere who understood and appreciated the financial value of these pieces. He once had a manuscript of George Washington and stated that he expected a grant of land in America in exchange for it. But he was far from alone in collecting, as by 1789 there was enough interest in the field to lead John Thane to publish the first book offering a selection of autograph facsimiles – British Autography. This added awareness also resulted in the donation of more manuscripts to institutions – at this time, Lord Frederick Campbell gave the British Museum the earliest royal autograph of England known to exist – a cross written in the hand of King William Rufus, circa 1090, in the center of a document in which he gave the manor of Lambeth to the church of Rochester. That is where things stood at the dawn of the 19th century – a small number of wealthy enthusiasts, scholars and antiquarians had established the hobby of collecting historically interesting manuscripts of deceased notable personalities.

An Autograph Marketplace Is Created

According to George Smith, publisher of Cornhill Magazine, the premier English magazine of the day, until 1822 transactions involving the sale and transfer of autograph collections were handled privately. That year, for the first time, they were sold publicly and singly. By the early 1830s, a public market for autographs had been established. Auctioneers began holding sales specifically containing books and autographs. And the great bibliophile Thomas Thorpe, one of London's best known booksellers whose finger was in every important pie at the time, became the first autograph dealer when he converted his inventory to one in which manuscripts accounted for 2/3 of his holdings. By the mid-1830s, he began issuing autograph catalogs fulled with material; in 1841, he offered his customers some 16,000 pieces. Thorpe's best customer was Sir Thomas Phillips who in one notable case purchased every single item in the Thorpe catalog. It would be half a century before an American autograph marketplace would arise.

Autograph Collecting in America

Autograph collecting in America did not begin in earnest until about 1815. The first major autograph collector in the United States was William B. Sprague (1795-1876), who though a 19th century collector, amassed a collection in line with late 18th century European collections. He was a friend of Jared Sparks and a tutor to members of the Washington family near Mount Vernon, and was given permission by Bushrod Washington to select from General Washington's correspondence whatever letters he wanted on condition he would leave copies of them. He thus came into possession of some 1,500 letters. At his death he is said to have had the largest and most valuable collection of autographs in the United States numbering some 40,000 pieces. His closest contemporary competitor was Israel K. Tefft, founder of the Georgia Historical Society. Yet even as they and others like them built their memorable collections, the field of autographs was changing dramatically.

By the 1830's, no longer content with autographs of deceased notables, manuscripts, letters and even signatures of living authors and statesmen became the targets of ambitious collectors. This trend accelerated in the 1840s and was in full swing by the 1850's, due in part to the rise of the first American literary figures (such as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving), and the Jacksonian populist spirit that made important people seem more approachable. In an 1850 letter to Mrs. Hamilton Fish, Cooper stated that he would have no trouble sending her a dozen autographs, as he received (and apparently complied with) such requests from perfect strangers "almost daily." Political figures began to find autograph requests in the mail. During the 1848 presidential campaign, Zachary Taylor received many requests for autographs, something his cousin James Madison would never have seen in his 1812 campaign. In 1860, Lincoln had so many, he set secretaries to writing out the responses for his signature. By then, recreational clubs devoted to autograph collecting had appeared.

The Victorians were great ones for classifying, categorizing and cataloguing, shuddering at the thought that an example of something, anything should fail to be included in a list where it might belong. This was the era when the Oxford English Dictionary was painstakingly compiled, and varieties of animal, vegetable and mineral sought out and put in their rightful places. To them belongs the credit for expanding the field of autographs to routinely include collecting sets, for broadening the categories being collected, and for widely spreading the net by seeking out autographs of minor people whose inclusion will nonetheless make the entirety more well-rounded. Victorian autograph albums can be a constellation of disparate and unconnected names, all of people who were in some fashion the glory of their times.

In the Victorian era, autograph collecting became a mania and demand was insatiable. Virtually no popular figure could avoid the inevitable autograph requests. This demand led to the development of a commercial marketplace for autographs, something that had never existed before. In fact, two arteries to this marketplace opened at about the same time. There had always been book and antique shops, and these might carry some manuscripts from time to time. Likewise, auction rooms were common throughout the United States, and a few manuscripts might find their way to them. However, there were neither autograph dealers nor auctions dedicated primarily to autographs. The need became dramatic as the first generation of American collectors began to disappear in the 1870s and 1880s, and their collections needed a way to reach the public.

New York was a boom town in the 1880s – a time of great excitement and pride in the city. It was an industrial center with a population of 1.3 million Ð almost evenly divided between native born and immigrants. There was a lot of new and old money able to be used for collecting and dealing. In response, the American Art Association auction house was formed in 1883 for the encouragement and promotion of American art. It started to have sales and exhibits of not merely art but literature in 1885. Other auctions soon followed, often combining books in the same sale.

In 1887, Walter R. Benjamin established a shop on Broadway selling autographs and manuscripts, quite likely the first such retail business in the United States and surely the first major one. His first promotional piece stated, "It is no use trying to coax an autograph from Gladstone. An application will only result in the receipt of a lithograph on a postal card." Ergo, buy your Gladstone letter from the Benjamin firm. The next year, Francis Madigan founded a similar business, one that enjoyed similar success. From then until 1936, the Benjamin firm (eventually led by Walter's daughter, Mary) and the Madigan company (eventually led by Francis' son, Thomas), with a few others, dominated the autograph market. When Thomas died, his widow consigned his stock to Benjamin, thus combining these two giants of the field. Comparable in importance was Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, who in the first half of the 20th century carried some of the most significant autographs to reach the market, many of European origin, and helped to create collections for the Huntington and other great libraries. He also left as a monument one of the finest manuscript depositories in the country, the Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia. Charles Sessler in Philadelphia and Goodspeed's in Boston were also known for their autograph stock in this era. Their customers included tycoons like J.P. Morgan and men soon to make their own mark, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Love of autographs and the feeling of connection to the writers is a thread that connects us to the patriarchs of Athens, the Roman seeking that rare Julius Caesar letter, the monkish scribes with candles aflicker, the bright lights of the Renaissance, the antiquarians of the Ashmolean age, and the Victorian categorizing notables and then writing them, hoping for a few lines in response. We are traveling in good company indeed on this great journey.

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