As we look back to the beginning of recognized autograph collecting, we know that literacy was not what it is today. A great deal of the country did not read or write. The United States was mostly an agrarian nation. Autograph collecting in America did not get on good footing until 1815. According to newspaper accounts, William Sprague of Albany and Israel Tefft of Savannah were the first major Americans to start autograph collecting.
People lived off of the land and there was little of no need for literacy as it related to their immediate livelihood. Transportation and communication was in its infancy and not what it is today. Therefore before you could do autograph collecting a degree of literacy had to be in place. During the colonial period, the ability to write was a reflection of your socio-economic status in the community where you lived. The style of script was supposed to match your social identity. Black slaves and non-elite women were denied the opportunity to learn to write. Nevertheless, commercial white men were encouraged to learn to write and to read.
It was when writing literacy approached 100% among white Americans that autograph collecting begin to come to the forefront in this country. Handwriting analysis or graphology became increasingly popular after the Civil War and into the twentieth century. With the rising interest in individuality, autograph collecting became very popular with Americans. In the early 20th century, ordinary Americans wanted some individuality. The handwriting was one of those popular and desired forms of individuality notwithstanding autograph collecting. People could hardly contain themselves while waiting for the mailman to see if they had a letter from a love one. Stamps were check and mail was an inexpensive form of communication. Everybody had a desire to read and write and made an effort of sorts to learn.
Any signature and all signatures were treasured during the early days of autograph collecting. Writing has always been important for preserving our history. Therefore in the beginning autograph collecting was one of the avenues used to collect history. Type setting was not like it is today so hand written manuscripts were treasured and very valuable. A handwritten manuscript in a broad sense is an autograph. It was recognized in the early days that autograph collecting was a way to collect history, not only governmental history, but history in every form including the art, literature, inventions, music and science. History seems to come alive when it feels like you have a piece of it. In the early history of autograph collecting, letters, notes, and documents all were under the autograph collecting umbrella. During this time signatures were the most inexpensive of autographs.
The history of autograph collecting comes in several forms – Books signed by the author, letters (handwritten or typed), documents (checks and contracts), manuscripts (short quotations written out), signed photographs (all sizes), presidential land grants, and signatures. Autograph collecting had its beginning by bringing moments in time to life. It is one of the oldest forms of collecting, and one of the most rewarding.
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