Recollections, by Steven Raab

It’s Sunday, December 11, 1966, a world away. There are no personal computers, no internet, no text messages, no email. If you look at the mammoth, 537-page New York Times that day, you’ll see that the front page lead story reads, “Vietcong step up terrorist action”, and another column notes that the post office may increase the cost of a stamp from its present level of 5 cents. Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret are playing on Broadway with their original casts. There are book store ads everywhere, pages and pages of them, and Sam Goody record store has a full two page ad listing hundreds of records. You can buy a new ranch house in the suburbs for $20,000, and a new Saab for $1,795. Leasing a Cadillac – the prestige car back then – will cost you $119 a month.

I’m 17 years old and still, of course, living with my parents at my childhood home at the shore in New Jersey. The weather is warm for December, really warm, and I’m outside in our driveway leafing through the Times, which I always avidly read in pre-Internet days. The great interest – you might say passion – of my life was, and remains, history, and I knew a little about collecting. I had a small collection of old newspapers, a few of them dating back to the Civil War, and also a Springfield rifle with the year 1863 engraved on it, that my parents, who encouraged my interest to the extent they could, ran across and bought me out of an old barn in upstate New York in 1962. It cost $17, plus another $15 for a gunsmith to get the rust off, which was the largest expenditure my parents ever made on my collection. I still have that gun.  I never imaged collecting, anything important. But that day, in the driveway, I spotted an ad that stopped me in my tracks, one so significant in my life that I recall the moment clearly after the passage of this entire half century.

B. Altman was a high end department store in New York in the era of great stores. In 1966 they hired Bob Tollett to set up an autograph department, and he talked Altman’s management into making a splash and taking out large and very expensive ads in the New York Times to promote the new venture. Bob’s vision was to bring word of the hobby of acquiring autographs to the masses of people who didn’t know it existed – people like me. This was unprecedented, as autograph businesses up until then had always been in small shops with no budget for major ads. I’d never heard of them, never imagined you could own something that Washington or Lincoln or Einstein had touched.

I stood dumbfounded looking at the Altman’s ad. Here I saw a document for sale signed by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson: price $525; a letter of Abraham Lincoln to the U.S. Senate for $825; a signature of Mark Twain: price $50; and so many more. Of course these were huge sums of money to a student without means, and I felt like a kid with my nose to the window of a candy store, looking at the delicacies and knowing I could never taste them. Why did I feel that way? To give you some idea of the lay of the land, the tuition at my college, the University of Pennsylvania, was $1,950 in 1966, so for the price of little more than these few pieces of paper, you could pay for a private college for a year. And my wife went to a state college, Iowa State University, and her tuition for the year was $340, considerably less than the Washington/Jefferson document alone.

Over three decades pass, and now I am an autograph dealer, living the dream born in my driveway.  I’m sitting in the living room of another autograph dealer looking at his inventory. That dealer is Bob Tollett, no longer with Altman’s and out on his own. At first I was hesitant to bring it up, but finally I mustered up the courage to tell him the story I’ve just told you. He was moved, his eyes teared up, as did mine.


Join Us

Stay informed about new historical documents, historical discoveries, and information for the educated collector.

Collect. Be Inspired.