While functionally, an autograph is simply someone’s own written signature on a piece of paper or other surface, it is often an item that possesses an insurmountable amount of cultural significance and market value.
Since the beginnings of civilisation, people have endeavoured to seek association with those in positions of power and influence. Collecting autographs can be a fun way to obtain a tactile, personal connection to a favorite historical figure or celebrity. It may commemorate a special encounter with an admired figure, or symbolize a noteworthy moment in history. Whether you are a fan of Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Dickens, Abraham Lincoln, or Lady Gaga, the autograph collecting hobby surely has something that may be of interest to you.
While autograph collecting may seem like a fairly recent phenomenon coinciding with the rise of film and pop stars, some trace the hobby all the way back to Ancient Roman times. It is said that Scaurus, the son-in-law of dictator Sculla, was amongst the first to set the trend of collecting autographs; he would obtain the personalized signet rings of individuals that would have been used as seals to denote the author of certain documents, and keep them to form a collection rather than use them. This became a popular hobby amongst the Ancient Romans, and notably Julius Caesar himself donated his own six cabinets worth of rings to the Temple of Venus Genetrix.
Later on in history, the importance of autographs would evolve in accordance with wealthy houses wanting to show off their fortune and status by displaying scholarly items and works of art that had been created and signed by the leaders in these fields. By this time, anything from paintings, to vases, trinkets, mosaics, and book manuscripts were signed by the artist or creator; this made it easier for the possessors of these items to convey that they could afford the best.
In addition to this, some people kept alba amicorum, or an ‘album of friends’, in which family, friends, and visitors to the home would sign their names; this way the owner of the book would be able to show off their impressive social network to others, similar to how one might show off being friends with someone famous of Facebook today. Similar autograph books containing notes, poems, verses and drawings from friends would remain popular through the 19th century until they were gradually replaced by yearbooks.
In America, one of the country’s first major autograph collectors was William B. Sprague. A tutor for numerous members of the Washington family, in 1815 he was permitted to take letters written and signed by George Washington so long as he left a copy. He obtained around 1,500 of such letters and by the end of his life, his collection impressively consisted of over 40,000 items. In the 1830s, people began to collect autographs not only from deceased figures of significance, but from living authors and politicians. The excitement of obtaining a personal connection to a famous person of power and influence was contagious, and soon the hobby would become widespread. By the 1890s, Walter R. Benjamin established a business in New York City that was specifically marketed for selling autographs and manuscripts.
"...it is only natural that the desire in audiences to forge a connection and feel closer to their idols would become even stronger..."
Into the 20th century, as new forms of media and entertainment emerged on the scene, the popularity of autographs would rise as well. Now people could obtain autographs not only from authors and politicians, but from famous sports players, movie actors, and pop and rock stars. With the advent of radio and television, the world became ever more connected and such figures were able to achieve the status of worldwide icons; thus it is only natural that the desire in audiences to forge a connection and feel closer to their idols would become even stronger, and thus the market for autograph collecting would flourish.
It is easy to see how the hobby of collecting autographs became what it is today, as it draws from one of humanity’s deepest and most instinctual needs - to feel connected with each other, and furthermore to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Collecting the signatures of figures we admire feeds on these desires by allowing us to feel closer to a person that symbolizes something we believe in and enjoy, whether it is literature, politics, sports, music, or film. And it is for these reasons that the autograph industry will likely continue for at least as long as it has already been around.