Mosquito’s Point Of View”: Student’s Research
Documents History Of Autograph-Collecting In U.Va. Exhibit
March 13, 2003--
Everyone knows that autograph hounds can be a nuisance: Movie
stars and other celebrities tell us so all the time. But what does
the world look like to the dedicated autograph hunter?
Adams, a Uni-ver-sity of Virginia history honors-major, culled through
hundreds of letters, documents and collectors’ memorabilia
in a U.Va. archive to mount a detailed educational exhibition presenting
the sometimes bizarre history of autograph-collecting. The exhibit,
“The Lives of the Autograph Collectors,” is on display
in the Rotunda Dome Room from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. daily through
have been collecting celebrity autographs for centuries,”
said Adams, who is writing a thesis on early American history. “Washington
Irving referred to autograph collectors as the mosquitoes of literature.
I wanted to tell the story from the mosquito’s point of view.”
addition to inscribed books, autograph albums and photographs, the
exhibit shows signed menus, playing cards, envelopes, and even postage
stamps, as well as several questionably authentic autographs of
politicians and some humorous examples of solicitation and rejection
autographs themselves, some from famous names, come in many forms.
Musicians sometimes add a bar or two of music to their autographs;
an artist or cartoonist may add a drawing.
put together the exhibit by poring through the extensive manuscript
collections of U.Va.’s Rare Book School, an institute for
the study of the history of printing which sponsors student-curated
exhibits. Much of the material on display was donated by manuscript
dealers who found it of little value. But Adams’s digging
and historical research “reveals a great deal about the philosophy
of autograph collecting,” said professor Terry Belanger, who
teaches the history of books and printing.
collecting has changed over time, said Adams. The phenomenon may
have had its start when 16th century German students kept albums
of correspondence as they traveled. By the late 18th century in
Europe, collecting letters of famous persons had become a popular
leisure activity. Until the 20th century, the primary targets of
autograph seekers tended to be literary, political and religious
coming of motion pictures, radio and television shifted the focus
to popular culture, and autograph hounds began to hunt stars down
for their signatures. Celebrities responded to the increased demand
for their autographs by turning such requests over to their staffs.
exhibition shows a 1940 form letter from Mickey Rooney to a fan.
“Thanks for taking the time to write,” he wrote on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
stationery. “My newest assignment is ‘A Yank at Eton,’
in which Freddie Bartholomew and I are together again. It’s
lots of fun –- I hope you will like it too.”
to it in the exhibition is a similar letter to a fan, on identical
stationery, from Myrna Loy.
signatures don’t always match each other, Adams found. The
exhibition shows four signatures -– all different -–
in responses to requests for autographs from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s
also found several examples showing that sometimes autograph hounds
strike out completely. In 1917, a Japanese diplomat responded to
an American autograph-seeker: “As regards your writing to
His Majesty, the Emperor, I would rather refrain from advising you
to do so.”
1885, a secretary to Edward, Prince of Wales, wrote this response:
“Owing to the large number of applications of a similar nature
which he is in the habit of receiving, he has found it necessary
to lay down a rule by which he is precluded from granting his autograph
unless he has the pleasure of being acquainted with the person applying
the other hand, the exhibition demonstrates that some autograph
collectors make out very well. In the early 1970s, a Brooklyn grammar-school
teacher, Father Robert F. Milde wrote to dozens of prominent figures
asking for advice for students in his graduating class and received
signed replies from the Pope, President Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller,
George McGovern and many other well-known figures. Hubert Humphrey’s
advice to the graduating class was: “Find your goal. Set the
course. And remember that it takes hard work and perseverance to
term “autograph hound” is fairly recent, Adams found.
The first known use of it is in a 1933 pulp detective fiction magazine
called “Black Mask,” on display with various autograph
collectors’ magazines and even several types of stuffed “hounds”
for school-children’s classmate signatures.
exhibit’s introduction and several images are on the U.Va.
Rare Book School Web site at www.rarebookschool.org.
Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856