Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The History of Collecting Autographs

One of the interesting aspects of being a published author that I’m still getting used to is when your name appears on the cover of a book, people ask for autographs. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a thrill, for sure. But the first time (or fifty), it felt really strange, too—probably because I know just what a goofball I am, how scatterbrained I tend to be half the time, and how very mundane my life is. I’ve been told some readers see their favorite authors as “rock stars”, but in my experience, most of us still struggle with the same silly things like what we are going to make for dinner, forgetting to buy toilet paper while at the store, or arriving late to pick our kids up from school. In other words, we’re normal people. We just happen to write stories that sometimes strike a chord with certain readers.

In my newest release, Taming Petra(part of the Cameo Courtshipsnovella collection), my heroine has had a series of Dime Novels written about her. In a couple different scenes, she is asked to autograph the tattered, well-read copies for her fans. While autographing books and memorabilia is a common request today, it occurred to me that I needed to check on when and how requesting an autograph came to be in history—just to be sure it was done in 1875, when the story takes place.

A Dime Novel about Calamity Jane

Apparently, it has long been a hobby of readers to collect the manuscripts of those authors they admire. So long that the custom goes back to at least 322 B.C. when Aristotle died and left all his writings to a successor, who then willed them to a disciple of his, and so on. Alexander the Great created a legendary library in Alexandria to house the writings of many literary greats. But it was with the Roman statesman and philosopher, Cicero (106 B.C.-43 B.C.), that we first saw anyone collecting the signatures of writers of his time. So autographs go back all the way to antiquity. 

The practice continued on, growing and morphing into other forms. By 1466, people began assembling books of their friends’ signatures in order to show the vastness of one’s acquaintances. A few hundred years later, these books took on a new form to benefit travelers. Those traveling would collect notes and signatures from each place they stopped as “letters of introduction” for their future stops on each journey. Often, this would lead to the traveler receiving aid and supplies along their way. 

Of course, eventually, people became wise to the monetary value of famous signatures. In the first half of the 1800’s in England, auctions began cropping where famous people’s signatures were sold at hefty prices.

But just because ancient Romans collected autographs of their literary heroes—or later civilizations found uses for books of autographs or ways to make money from them—that didn’t mean that it was a common practice in my story’s time frame. So when did the practice of collecting autographs on writings or memorabilia come to America?

William B. Sprague, one of the earliest
collectors of autographs in America.

The answer to that would be around 1815 with a man by the name of William Sprague. Sprague had some connection to the family of George Washington, and through that connection, he was given permission to take and keep as many of the first U.S. President’s writings as he wanted, so long as he made a copy of each to leave with the Washington family. Sprague ended up with roughly 1500 pieces of George Washington’s writings.

Signature of 1st President of the United States--George Washington

For a long time, America was too new to have many famous fiction authors—at least those writing fictionalized accounts about America’s history. Some of the early greats who wrote tales of the life in Colonial America or beyond were James Fennimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who both wrote in the mid-1800s. These men became favorites to request signatures from. Along with them were politicians, men like Zachary Taylor and Abraham Lincoln. It’s said that Lincoln had so many written requests for his signature that he employed certain staff members just to write the return correspondence to which he would sign his name.

Autograph of Abraham Lincoln
Across a span of 50+ years, early Americans collected and enjoyed a great many notable signatures, but by the 1870s and into the 1880s, those collectors began aging and dying off. This led to a lot of “homeless” autograph collections. And this, in turn, led to the American market for selling autographs. Autograph shops were created, as well as auction rooms where individual signatures or whole collections could be sold to the highest bidder.

And the practices of obtaining and buying/selling famous signatures continues even today.

It’s your turn: If you could request any historical figure’s autograph, who would you ask? Why?

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list numerous times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.

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Cameo Courtships—available now

A Family Heirloom Inspires Romance
In 1851, a special cameo is gifted by Queen Victoria to Letitia Newton, who though considered an old maid, meets the perfect gentleman minutes after donning. Told by the Queen the cameo is to be shared, Letitia gifts the "Victoria Cameo" to a woman in her family, hoping adventure and romance will follow each of its subsequent wearers.


  1. Asking for an autograph would mean that I'd actually meet the person, and I've always been fascinated by Abraham Lincoln. What I am amazed about in the post is your dedication to accuracy in your work, which I appreciate. Most times I would never know if something wasn't period-correct, and the fact that you and many other authors care enough to make sure of something simple like that blesses me. Thank you!!!

    1. Thank you, Connie! It's nice to know our efforts are appreciated. I'm sure I speak for authors everywhere when I say we strive to tell the best stories we can, and the research is half the fun.

  2. Over the years, I have collected several autographs from various people. Now, as a published author, people ask me for my autograph. :-)

    1. Isn't it FUN, Melissa??? Congrats on the "milestone" in your career! ;)