The collecting of autographs in America did not begin in earnest until about 1815. Three men merit recognition as the first major autograph collectors in the United States. One was Richard Gilmor of Baltimore, who also collected art. The second was William B. Sprague, who although a 19th collector, amassed holdings reminiscent of 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 in all some 40,000 pieces. The third 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 late 1830’s, encouraged by the Jacksonian populist spirit that made important people seem more approachable, the idea of collecting autographs became widespread. And no longer content with concentrating on autographs of deceased notables, people sought manuscripts, letters and even signatures of living authors and statesmen. This trend accelerated in the 1840’s and was in full swing by the 1850’s, when armies of ambitious collectors sought out the first American literary figures (such as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving). 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.” On one day in 1857, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote out, sealed and mailed seventy responses to autograph requests. Political figures also began to find autograph requests in the mail, some asking for locks of hair. During the 1848 presidential campaign, Zachary Taylor received many such requests, something his cousin James Madison would never have experienced 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.
Just as importantly, a market for autographs developed in the United States. At first, the sales were private rather than public auctions. At left is a list of manuscripts that sold at a private sale, along with prices, way back in 1860.
The Victorians were great ones for classifying, categorizing and cataloging, 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.”
By the late 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 not existed before on a consistent basis. 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 after 1830 a few manuscripts might find their way to them. About 1860, Charles DeForest Burns, Secretary of the New York Park Department, began issuing sporadic lists of autographs for sale in a magazine called “The Antiquarian.” It was very much a part time effort for him. Otherwise, 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 1870’s and 1880’s, and their collections needed a way to reach the public market. In the 1870s, two small autograph auctions sprang up, Bangs & Co. and Leavitt & Co.
New York was a boom town in the 1880’s, a time of great excitement and pride in the city. It was an industrial center with a population of 1.3 million, 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, and it started to have major sales and exhibits of manuscripts and literature in 1885. Other auctions soon followed, often combining books and manuscripts in the same sale.
In 1887, Walter R. Benjamin opened a shop on Broadway selling autographs and manuscripts, quite likely the first such retail establishment 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, such as Charles Sessler’s in Philadelphia and Goodspeed’s in Boston, dominated the autograph market. When Thomas Madigan died, his widow consigned his stock to Benjamin, thus combining these two giants of the field. A bit later, but of comparable importance, was Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, who in the mid-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. The customers of these great dealers 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 Romans 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 Victorians categorizing notables and then writing them, hoping for a few lines in response. We are traveling in good company indeed on this great journey.