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“The 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?

Nathaniel 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 April.

“People 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.”

In 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 letters.

The 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.

Adams 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.

Autograph 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 figures.

The 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.

The 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.”

Next to it in the exhibition is a similar letter to a fan, on identical stationery, from Myrna Loy.

Politicians’ 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 office.

Adams 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.”

In 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 for it.”

On 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 succeed.”

The 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.

The exhibit’s introduction and several images are on the U.Va. Rare Book School Web site at

Contact: Bob Brickhouse, (434) 924-6856

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services


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