Posted on August 17 2019
On Collecting Historical Memorabilia
My Thoughts on Autograph Collecting and Collecting Historical Memorabilia
Historical document and autograph collecting, and collecting historical memorabilia is a virtual time machine that takes us into the lives of those persons in culture and history whose genius has touched us, whose lives and accomplishments have inspired us, whose efforts have created our heritage and influenced our present. History and the people who made it are the keys to who we are today and who we may be tomorrow. Autograph letters and documents are the most direct link we can have to the heroes and heroines, villains, and ordinary people of the past. They show these men and women as human beings, dealing with matters on a scale that all of us can relate to. We begin to appreciate that their lives may not be all that different from our own—that people of the past confronted the same feelings and fears that we all do, that they preserved to achieve the goals—both great and small—of their lives.
Perhaps the greatest emotion elicited by collecting autographs, historical letters and documents is inspiration. While many may think of collecting historical memorabilia as an intellectual pursuit, it is an emotional one as well. Many collectors have told me of their being overwhelmed with emotion sitting in a room at home with the “presence” of those they admire. One told me that he walked through the rooms of his home every night in awe of those whose letters and documents he had displayed on his walls. Another described how during moments, when inspiration escaped her in her work, she sat gazing at her collection and reflecting on the highs and lows of these people’s lives and how they had overcome the difficult times and preserved to attain greatness.
Historical letters and documents open doors into times, events, and lives and bring them alive, allowing us literally to touch them and to be touched by them. For many, Winston Churchill’s life is the greatest inspiration. No person facing late middle age could fail to be inspired by a man whose political career seemed to be finished during the First World War, who for the decade of the thirties was considered a crackpot by everyone, including his closest friends, and who then, at the age of sixty-five years took over the helm of the English government at a time when it ought to have been conquered by Germany, and, in a very real sense, who through the power of his personality alone inspired his nation to heroic feats unparalleled in modern history.
The greatest autograph and rare book dealer of all time, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach, who in the earlier part of the twentieth century brought some of the great collections of Europe to America, thereby helping to create the Huntington and may other great libraries, wrote in his autobiography,
“Every true collector is strongly moved when he sees the autograph of a great personage. . . . And, after all, the printed word must have a certain coldness and formality. Indeed, it is perhaps a part of its beauty. But words written down by the actor himself as he helps to complete the drama are personal things which unfailingly appeal to the imagination….There is also some palpable quality in a great man’s handwriting which draws one to it; people who have never dreamed of collecting, who never heard of the collecting mania, will suddenly react to old letters and documents. They are mad to own them. Some human attraction exists in the written word…quite different from the appeal made by printing. This appeal is primarily emotional….Especially this is true of autograph letters. They naturally hold a more personal message, in that they interpret the spirit and reflect the period of the writer, who in informal letters is off his guard, quite unlike the mood that an author brings delight at the sight of one of those charmingly familiar letters written by Bobbie Burns. Indeed, I once became rather dizzy with joy myself, when I bought the…famous letter of Charles Dickens about the inception of Pickwick.”
Malcolm Forbes, in his book on his collection and his life, More Than I Have Dreamed, wrote, “Unquestionably my favorite among the collections are the autograph… documents….Such documents give us in many ways a better conception of a person than it is possible to get from a formal portrait or, in later years, from a photograph. They remind us that these are more than historical figures—they were people pouring their hopes, sadnesses, reactions and directions onto paper. Their letters and documents are what makes flesh and blood of key figures in our country’s history.”
By Kenneth W. Rendell II