Autograph collecting: A brief history

As with so many aspects of modern society, we have the ancient Greeks to thank for the concept of autographs.

The origin of the word itself is Greek. It comes from “autographon”, meaning “written in one's own hand”.

Here’s a brief look at how autograph collecting developed over the last couple of millennia.

Origins

Go back a few thousand years and the world was unimaginably different.

In Europe this was a time of city states and empires. A handful of very powerful people ruled over an illiterate population.

Signatures were the preserve of the ruling classes and as such were fundamentally powerful symbols. They had the power to send armies into battle, sentence (or pardon) a dissenter and to completely alter the way a society functioned.

Autographs Brief History

The ancient Greeks built the Library of Pergamum in the 3rd century BC (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In Greece and Rome, the dual pillars of the ancient world, rulers usually marked their decrees with a wax seal. On occasion they would sign their names in ink.

The Greeks valued these documents, building some of the world’s first libraries to store them. But it was the Romans who seem to have been the first to collect specific names. The Roman writer Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) wrote at length on his own collection in letters to friends (he was a particular fan of Julius Caesar).

Sadly not a single signature from any ancient Greek or Roman ruler has survived to the present day. Autograph collecting died when Rome fell in AD 476, plunging Europe into the dark ages.

Revival

Autographs came back in fashion with the rise of the Renaissance (1300-1600).

The rate of literacy increased across Europe during this time. One outcome were the albae amicorum (books of friendship), which probably originated in Germany. They're considered the world’s first autograph albums.

Autograph Brief History

The alba amicorum showed how well connected you were  (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The earliest examples date to the mid-15th century. Wealthy travellers with the funds to tour Europe asked those they met along the way to sign specially made books. High status figures signed at the front, while less well known people left their marks at the back.

This wasn’t all about bragging rights.

The main idea was to show how well connected you were. Your collection served as an introduction to other high status people, proving you were worth knowing.

To the present day

The Enlightenment arrived in the 17th century. Culture and science began to have a greater influence on society. Signatures from great historical figures were in high demand among the European intelligentsia.

When the mid-1800s came around, auction houses started plying a brisk trade in autographs.

Shakespeare

William Shakespeare's autograph - one of only six known (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

As society became less centralised (and more money entered the hobby) the definition of a notable person expanded. Musicians, sporting heroes and writers became ever more sought after.

In the 20th century autographs became so popular that dedicated auction houses sprang up. Today vast numbers of autographs are sold every year. The industry is worth billions of dollars.

Times may have changed, but the reason we collect autographs remains the same. They offer an unparalleled connection to some of the most fascinating characters in history.

Paul Fraser. 

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