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Friday, April 11, 2014

Sign Here

When giving tours or talking with people about the Rosenbach, I often get questions about "autographs" and whether the Rosenbach collects them.  The word "autograph" comes from the Greek for "self" and "write" and when we talk about an "autograph document" here at the Rosenbach, we are talking about an item that is handwritten by its author (rather than a secretary or copyist). An "autograph document" does not necessarily mean that it is signed. 

In common parlance, however, people often refer to autograph collecting in terms of collecting signatures of famous people. In general, that was not Dr. Rosenbach's approach. He certainly wanted to buy, sell, and collect manuscripts written by famous people, both literary and historical, but he wanted the items to be substantive--he was interested in the whole document, not just the signature. Of course there were some exceptions, for example, there are some Abraham Lincoln documents in which we have only his signature or only Lincoln's portion of a document with the rest clipped away. Another exception was Dr. Rosenbach's Signers Set.

"Signers Sets" are sets of 56 documents, each bearing the John Hancock of a signer of the Declaration of Independence (bad pun fully intended). William Buell Sprague assembled the first such set, beginning in 1815/6 when he was employed by the Washington family, who allowed him to take letters as long as he left copies. Most of the items in Dr. Rosenbach's Signers Set set are full documents, but the point of the collection was the signatures. For example, Button Gwinnett, a Georgia signer, is represented by a will he witnessed--the only part of the document that is in his hand is the signature.


Joseph Stanley, will witnessed and signed by Button Gwinnett.

Savannah, Georgia, 29 May 1770. AMs 545/17, rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Detail from Joseph Stanley, will witnessed and signed by Button Gwinnett.
Savannah, Georgia, 29 May 1770. AMs 545/17, Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia

Gwinnett's is often celebrated as the rarest signer signature; there are 51 known examples. Its scarcity is influenced by his not having had a substantial pre-Declaration political career, his death in a duel in 1777, the end of his family line before the 19th century, and the repeated destruction of Savannah. There are other rare signers, even some who may be rarer, but as Ryan Speer, the compiler of a recent Gwinnett census explains, "Button Gwinnett has had the benefit of better publicity!"

Signer's sets had a heyday in the 1920s and Dr. R. bought eight Gwinnetts between 1926 and 1934: one for himself and the remainder for the Rosenbach Company. Speer notes that "one of the most spectacular purchases of a Gwinnett autograph, if not the most spectacular, was made by Philadelphia bookseller Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach in 1927, when he paid $51,000 for autograph Number 36 in the census below—a 1776 letter of the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress bearing the signatures of Gwinnett and five other signers of the Declaration of Independence. Rosenbach, now a somewhat obscure figure, played an underappreciated role in increasing the visibility and inflating the market value of signers’ signatures and other manuscript Americana." The value of Button-graphs crashed with the stock market however, and did not recover until after Dr. R's death.

As a corrective to Gwinnett's media dominance, let's also remember Thomas Lynch Jr., a signer from South Carolina who died at age 30 and whose signature may actually be the most rare. Dr. Rosenbach noted that "genuine Lynch signatures are excessively rare;" because of that rarity he had to content himself with just a signature, one found on the frontispiece to Sophocles Tragedies.
Thomas Lynch Jr., signature. [ca. 1770] AMs 1084/6. Rosenbach of the Free Library of Philadelphia
With that, I'll sign off.


Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach Museum & Library and the primary poster at the Rosen-blog

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