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A Brief History of Autograph Collecting

Posted by Lilly Duncan on

The desire to collect written works and signatures of people has been around since ancient Roman times. Many people went to great lengths to preserve the manuscripts of Aristotle and thank goodness they did! Because of the value they placed on the written word we’re able to study Aristotle’s teachings today. The first autograph book – or “book of friends” – was compiled in 1466. Autographs of friends and people a person knew would be obtained to show others who you knew. Some inscribers also made small sketches next to their signature. These were valuable books of communication and could prove that you knew someone, if necessary. The signatures assisted in opening doors and making introductions.

During the 1700s, the act of collecting signatures for interest and historical significance became popular. In 1789, there was enough interest in collecting that the first book offering autograph facsimiles was printed, entitled British Autograph.

A public market for autographs had been established by the early 1830s. Auctions began to be held. Autograph collecting in American took a little longer to catch on. By the 1850s, autograph hunting of living persons was on the rise both in Europe and the U.S. Political and literary figures were sought after targets of autograph hunters. In the Victorian age, no popular public person could avoid demands for autographs.

Led Zeppelin album signed by Robert Plant

A retail shop in New York was opened in 1887 by Walter R. Benjamin that sold manuscripts and autographs. It is believed to be the first such shop in the U.S. He advertised to just come to them instead of hounding someone for the autograph request that very well may not be granted.

Fast forward to today when people avidly collect autographs from movie, television, sports, political and, yes, music figures. Across the world there are clubs and websites devoted to the art of autograph collecting. Autograph sessions are set up for fans and famous musicians are almost always asked for autographs from fans after their shows.

Autograph collecting has not changed much since Roman times. It is a way to be connected to history and to those you admire. When you get that coveted autograph hopefully you will take as much care as Aristotle’s friends did with his works and preserve it for others down the road!

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