Celebrity Autograph Albums
Among novelists the writing of Charlotte Bronte [sic] is distinguished for its extreme minuteness. Her fingers were long and tapering, as was her pencil, consequently the letters thus formed are infinitesimal. The writing of George Eliot is neither masculine nor feminine, but indicates power and individuality.
– May Croly, “Writing in Autograph Albums” (1880)
Today’s fascination with celebrity culture makes it easy to imagine why celebrity autograph albums were popular in the Victorian era. If the handwriting of celebrities could reveal truths about their personalities, then books of celebrity autographs had the potential to be very revealing documents.
In an 1891 Girl’s Own Paper article, H. Saxe Wyndham writes that autograph collecting was sometimes a cure for boredom. However, trivial interest in the personalities of famous figures was not the only motivation behind the activity. Autograph collectors often had an archival instinct, seeing importance in their collections and viewing themselves as “guardian[s] for the materials of history” (111). This motivation existed particularly when collectors engaged in what Wyndham refers to as “autograph collecting proper”: that is, the activity of collecting whole documents (such as letters) handwritten by the famous person in question, as opposed to solely collecting their signature. Such autographed documents could potentially shed new light on historically significant events (111). According to Wyndham, Queen Victoria herself was a “genuine” autograph collector (348).
“Autograph collecting proper” was a difficult task, and many of these albums contain decontextualized signatures as well as (or instead of) full, autographed documents. This is the case with the exhibit’s featured celebrity album—an anonymously created English 19th century autograph album (SC198) that contains signatures from a variety of British nobles.
Pictured to the right: A "genuine" autographed document from the Earl of Lonsdale and a signature from the Earl of Stamford, both collected in UVic's English 19th Century Autograph Scrapbook (created between 1828 and 1859).
How were celebrity autographs collected?
For those engaging in “autograph collecting proper,” the hobby required patience and a lot of luck. Wyndham explains: “Many and many a time, far oftener than you would think, have valuable manuscripts been chanced upon when the lucky finder least expected it” (111). Understanding that some people could wait their whole lives without stumbling upon a surprise box of documents handwritten by famous figures, Wyndham also suggests that collectors spur on their discoveries by searching through every bundle of letters they find stored away in boxes or desk drawers. Another recommended tactic: asking friends of celebrities (not the celebrities themselves!) for correspondence.1
“Many and many a time, far oftener than you would think, have valuable manuscripts been chanced upon when the lucky finder least expected it.”
More commonly, autograph collectors did write directly to celebrities. These requesters would “[lay] it on thick enough,” knowing that they “had not the slightest right to ask the favour” (De Blaquière 500). Some collectors would go so far as approaching celebrities in person, asking them to sign albums.2 This tactic was common even before the Victorian era’s collecting craze, and in the early nineteenth century, authors such as William Wordsworth and Felicia Hemans were vocal about their dislike of this practice.3
Despite their grumblings, being asked for autographs was an indicator of success—many celebrities responded, and many autograph albums were made.
How were celebrity autographs displayed?
When collectors approached celebrities in person, autographs were scrawled directly into albums. For those collectors who received autographs in the mail, or for those who engaged in “autograph collecting proper,” decisions had to be made about how to display their collections.
Some collectors chose to cut autographs out and paste them into their albums. A practice similar to traditional scrapbooking, this method was highly discouraged by Wyndham as it “involves the partial destruction or hiding of the old specimen” (111). A more preservation-friendly approach would be to cut slits into the album or to buy paper corners, and then to mount the autographs that way.4
Another autograph display practice similar to traditional scrapbooking was to supplement autographs with contextual material such as illustrations or printed biographies. Wyndham warns that the addition of too much contextual material could overshadow the collection, but not enough could devalue it.5
Pictured above: Autographs pasted into UVic's English 19th Century Autograph Scrapbook.
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