Historical Documents - A Window to the Past October 20 2022
Any official document which can be relied upon as the basis or as a support document for anything related to history is a historical document. A historical document can be from any field from politics to medicine, or any field of human experience. They are frozen moments in time, a piece of history that can be treasured in any collector´s hands.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Historical documents have existed since the start of history itself. There are paintings on the walls of caves that date back nearly 20,000 years. Without any written language Cro-Magnon man tried to improve his expressive abilities to preserve a written record of his life that can transcend time.
Paleolithic art is displayed at its finest in the cave dwellings of Dordogne valley of Southern France and Altamira in Northern Spain. These pictorials show the basic need of the humans to reach beyond themselves and leave something of themselves that is available for the future generations.
Paleolithic art on the walls of the Lascaux, Dordogne caves
The Sumerians, who existed some three thousand years B.C., developed a phonetic system of writing that was based on sounds. It is known as "cuneiform," meaning "wedge-shaped." They used tablets to keep their records. The engravings were done on the tablets of soft clay which were later fired into lasting tablets. Their writing instrument was stylus. Egyptians also recorded their history using hieroglyphics. Egyptians also moved from using pictograms to phonetics.
Sumerians formed the first archives of the civilized men. Aristotle is credited with setting up the first library. He even convinced the Egyptian kings to develop libraries. Once convinced, the Egyptian royalty developed the great library of Alexandria.
The evolution to phonetic sounds was the next big move. It is believed that it occurred in the region of modern day Syria and Israel. Many traders and merchants used to pass from this area, so the phonetic alphabets used the linguistics of different areas. Phonetic sounds were developed due to the complexity of pictograms and the ever expanding need of recording information.
From the creation of libraries, there is a long way of evolution of writing until we get to what matter the most to us today: the invention of the English Roundhand, a type of calligraphy that originated in England around 1660, mostly by John Ayres and William Banson, and is based on the French Rhonde style.
Before this, there were a wide variety of writing styles, and adopting one or a few styles as the standard/s was very much needed so one can understand all handwritten text in documents. Roundhand instantly grew in popularity and quickly became the writing standard.
Sumerian cuneiform clay tablet - 3rd dinasty of Ur, 2100-2200 BC
HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS ARE HIGHLY COLLECTIBLE
This development largely facilitated the almost immediate appearance of those who collected historical documents.
The number of collectors of historical documents grew up in the 90s. Before the 90s people thought that the historical documents are neither available nor affordable. Both reasons are just myths. The first myth of non-availability of the historical documents is due to the limited number of historical documents that are available in the market.
For the past century only historical societies, museums, and a few private collectors have owned such documents. Although the number of private collectors has increased but it is still surprising to think that a private collector can have a letter signed by George Washington.
When it comes to affordability, one can own historical documents even with reasonable amount of funds. Sports and theatres are good areas where one can start as a collector. There are many collectibles from the era of 1776 at a modest price. Presidential signatures with a photo or signed Presidential photos make an impressive collection and can be bought at modest prices.
When people became aware that a collector does not need to be rich and it is a financially rewarding activity, the number of collectors increased. Reasons for collecting vary. Some people collect historical things to get insight into the history makers. It gives us a chance to own our personal hero’s piece of life.
We get a glimpse into the life of our hero by owning his document. Historical documents also make us aware of some aspects of our hero’s life that we were not aware of earlier. Like the letter written by Einstein to his lover presents his emotional side of personality which is different than image of a scientist that we all know.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A. Einstein Typed Letter Signed dated in 1935
Some people become a collector because of professional association. A songwriter may collect signed works of famous song writers or an attorney may collect signed works of the Supreme Court Justices. Our association with our heroes is mostly through the secondary sources but the historical documents give us the opportunity to share the original writings and thoughts through their signed letters or documents. Some people are tired of the manufactured memorabilia.
After all, owning something original of a personal hero is a different experience, and can happen for different reasons. With increase in the number of collectors the price of the original materials has risen as well. It has increased the investment potential of the historical documents. The beauty of the historical collectibles is another reason for owning it. Owning historical documents may be due to a variety of reasons.
TYPES OF HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS
As discussed, there is a wide variety of historical documents available. Autograph is a famous type of historical document. It is not limited to signature of a history maker. It can include anything written by any famous personality like a handwritten letter, a draft, a drawing, a sketch or other materials. Signature on these things is not necessary. The important aspect is that they were created by the history maker’s own hand.
A “manuscript letter signed” is a hand written and signed letter by the history maker. The Gallery of History has developed descriptions which help the collectors identify the worth of documents. The factors to consider regarding an autograph material are its length, specific type, or the type of material which has the signature.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Document signed by the military and political leader Simon Bolivar naming officer Galindo as Colonel of Infantry
The length and intent of a work by history maker helps to classify it as a manuscript, a note or a letter. A “clipped signature” is a signature clipped from any document. If there is some original written material, it is categorized as “fragment signed.”
Different pieces of art signed may be “engraving signed,” “original art signed,” etc. A check made out to the history maker and endorsed by him falls under the category of “check endorsed” while a check signed by the historical person is considered as “check signed”. If the document or check is signed twice it is categorized as “double signed.”
Manuscripts can be any piece of writing by the historical personality like a short story, an essay or a book. Manuscripts are intellectual creations. Manuscripts have been written by hand are called “autograph manuscripts” and if the work is signed as well, the work is categorized as "autograph manuscript signed."
The category of manuscripts not written by the author or are typed are categorized as “manuscripts” or "typed manuscripts." If signatures are present on a “manuscript” it is classified as "manuscript signed" or a "typed manuscript signed."
The area of autograph quotations and typescripts is a little controversial. Typescripts are any typed letters or documents, signed by the same person after the fact, but are like the original or exactly as the original. An example of typescript is Robert E. Lee's General Order No. 9. dated April 10, 1865. It was Lee’s farewell address to his troops written by an aide. Back in the days it was a normal practice to make multiple copies and have them signed by the history maker. Several copies of Lee’s document exist that are signed by him. “Photo typescripts” also fall in this category. These are photos created "after the fact," are signed by the history maker and tell about an event as well as show it actually.
“Autograph quotations” are copies of the original written material entirely in the author's own hand. They are dated with the original document’s date to link it to that important phase of the history maker. The “purists” and collectors seeking to build a collection of unique pieces may disagree when it comes to typescripts, photo typescripts and autograph quotations but all hese things are closely related to the history maker.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Official document signed by the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara (1928-1967) as Minister of Industry of Cuba.
The two basic definitions for documents are: "forms, often hand written, generated by (or related to) an important public figure in their lifetime (and for twenty years after death); and, "materials relating to an important and historical event." Battle orders, land deeds, ship’s papers, birth and death certificates, checks and bank drafts, and stock certificates are few of the examples of documents.
Documents are important to someone collecting materials related to a historical period. There are many routine documents signed by George Washington which may number in thousands. These documents are affordable and are a testimony to the foundational period of the nation.
Another important category is the printed pieces. “Printed pieces” include handbills, posters, playbills or programs, menus, and pamphlets. Signatures increase the importance of the printed pieces, but these pieces are also used for adding historical background to document display. Signed photographs are popular with collectors and affordable as well.
A photo with signatures is "signed photo", a photo with notations and signature is "annotated photo signed" and "inscribed photo" is a photo with inscription on it. Secretaries or mechanical means are also used for signatures on photos, so a collector needs to have good knowledge about the subject’s handwriting. Signed "First Day" covers are popular with collectors interested in a specific topic.
These items commemorate a person or event through issuing a stamp on a special "cover". Inscribed books and inscribed memorabilia are also famous among collectors. “Inscribed sports memorabilia” has tremendous demand, but this category has been infiltrated by forgery.
To get original inscribed sports memorabilia three methods can be used: get it from the subject directly, purchase from a licensed agent or get it from a reputable source. “Ephemera” is a miscellaneous category that includes one-of-a-kind pieces like a pair of suspenders worn by John Wayne. The world of historical documents has a wide variety of choices for collectors.
WHAT PEOPLE COLLECT
Two of the most important collecting categories are of Signers of the Declaration of Independence and the American Presidents. By knowing the conditions under which a historical document was written would let us appreciate the importance of the document and the people associated with it. The “Declaration of Independence” was signed by 56 persons, fifty signed on 2nd August 1776 and six signed it later. George Washington was not able to sign it as he was in the army at that time. Fifty six signatures are required to complete the collection of all the signers. Except two signers, others are not extremely challenging to collect. Button Gwinnett and Thomas Lynch, Jr.’s signatures are difficult to collect. Button Gwinnett died at a young age of 42. Only one of his letters is in existence. His manuscripts and autographs are rare. Thomas Lynch, Jr. died at the age of 30 due to health issues. His signatures are also rare to find. Rest of the 54 signatures can be collected and authenticated by reputable dealer or by comparing the handwriting with facsimiles in a book of signatures like “The Book of Signers: Containing Facsimile Letters of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.”
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Decree signed by the Italian politician Benito Mussolini and the Italian king Vittorio Emmanuele III in 1925.
Collecting the autographs of the American Presidents is very popular collection area among the collectors. The decisions made by these people has had a great impact on the lives of the American people. An added benefit is that Presidential material is always in demand. There is variety of material that falls in this category. Presidential campaign materials, Presidential franks, autographed photographs, Autographed White House Cards and the list goes on. Material related to high ranked officials and cabinet members during the President’s term can also be considered for collection.
George Washington was a self-trained surveyor. In 1775, he was appointed to command the Continental Army. The army was untrained and poorly equipped. He was inexperienced but learned quickly. He eventually became the President of the United States and earned the title of "Father of Our Country." Different letters and manuscripts penned by him are available.
Thomas Jefferson was a political philosopher, inventor, scientist, and architect. Jefferson served two terms as the President of the United States. Jefferson’s letters are also available and in great demand. Abraham Lincoln’s life is an inspiration for all. He was a prolific writer, and his autographs are the most prized. Lincoln’s documents are high in demand and expensive too.
[IMAGE] United States President Abraham Lincoln signed carte-de-visite
Theodore Roosevelt became famous during the Cuban war. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. He became the President of the United States after the assassination of President William McKinley. Most of Roosevelt material is typewritten.
Franklin D. Roosevelt left his impression on America that only few people did. The legislation during his first three months in office changed the structure of the United States economic life and philosophy. His letters are notable for their warmth. He had trained aides who could sign his name so you must be cautious when dealing FDR’s documents.
John F. Kennedy was loved by the Americans as well as people around the world who adored freedom. His term represented a key time in American history. Kennedy’s autograph material is the most prized after Lincoln. His script was inconsistent so the authenticity can only be verified by the experts.
Some modern presidents can reach truly high prices with their autographs. A signed bible, bearing the signature of the United States 45th president, Donald Trump and sent to his future wife, sold for over 12,000 usd in September 2022.
There are also many people who have made significant contributions but are relatively unknown. Haym Salomon is one of those persons. He gave loans to the American government during the initial years of its existence. He contributed $700,000 to a budget of $2,000,000. He acted as the paymaster general of the French forces in United States. He died due to tuberculosis and his wife was left penniless. Government did not have the resources to pay back the debt.
Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the greatest military commanders of all times. He could snatch victory from far superior foes. The war strategies adopted by Bonaparte are even studied today in military classrooms. His dream of united Europe under one government could not materialize. He left a great legacy of brining economy under control, establishing the Bank of France and reforming the French legal system.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A rare letter, dated in 1483, signed by the queen of Castile Isabella I (1451-1504) and addressed to a nobleman named Sancho de Vergara.
A lot of Napoleon’s documents are available but signed autographs are rare and costly. Lord Nelson, Napoleon's brilliant antagonists, could be included in a Napoleonic collection. The Napoleonic Era offers a collector to collect a colorful montage of one of the most important periods in history.
Another turbulent period of history is the American Civil War. American deaths in the civil war are more than the combined deaths of World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. This period has kept on getting popular among the collectors. Letters of the war period are in high demand. Pre and post war manuscripts and autographs are available and inexpensive.
Most autographs of Union leaders are available specially of the people who had a long life after the war. Confederate autographs are scarce. Tons of documentations of the Civil War era were preserved.
Collecting is not limited to historical figures or events or periods in history. It includes fields of human interests as well. If you love literature, you may collect literary autographs and manuscripts. An author’s letters and papers often precipitate the development which eventually take the shape of a story or a play.
A collector may have to compete with institutions in case of a major writer of any nation. But there are hundreds of writers with significant contributions whose autographs are available. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Marianne Moore, Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser, Longfellow and Thornton Wilder are writers whose materials are available at a reasonable cost.
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] A beautiful vintage photograph of the famous Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), signed and inscribed by him, dated in Montevideo, 1905.
Collections can be built from different perspectives. For example, if you have interest in literature and religion, you might collect materials of writers who were influenced by their religious beliefs. You can start the collection of journalists, poets and the great jazz age novelists Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. Music transcends languages.
Not very long ago, manuscripts of the great composers were available for free or at very low prices because only great cities could support a symphony orchestra and only rich people could afford the tickets. But with the advent of mass media & radio music’s impact on society increased immensely. Everyone had access to different types of music.
By the 1950s, musical autographs became expensive. An average collector cannot afford the autographs of the musical greats like Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Handel, Schubert and others due to the highest level of competition. Grieg, Stravinsky, Massenet, and Prokofiev’s autographs are affordable for an average collector. If an original score is unaffordable, you can collect a letter. Musicians, conductors, big band leaders, or jazz performers are some of the areas for collection.
Elvis and the Beatles are contemporary musical greats. They had great impact on the American society and make for an impressive collection. Research about your field of interest. Movies also have had great impact on the millions of viewers. Classics such as “Gone With The Wind” have transcended time. The stars of such movies will remain popular in a large section of the society. Their performances are recorded and their faces remain fresh in our memories. Their behavior sets trends.
Our greatest interest could be the stars who have almost a cult like following: Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Rudolph Valentino. Classic comedians are also worthy of collection. The materials of the comedians like W.C. Fields, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Groucho Marx, and the Three Stooges can bring great returns.
Scientific and medical autographs should not be overlooked. Science and medical advances have brought great benefits to our lives. They have given great personal sacrifices to improve our lives. They were oppressed by the church and the state. Their journey is documented in their correspondence, historic letters, papers, and notes. Many of these great people were ordinary people who were stubborn. They were able to succeed due to their determination despite facing pressures of the family responsibilities and lack of success.
Galileo’ rare autographs are beyond the reach of an average collector. Sir Isaac Newton, and William Harvey who laid the foundation of the modern medicine have great appeal among the collectors. Two problems are faced by collectors. First is that the autographs are in the native language for which a description is required. Secondly, a large amount of material is available, so you need to choose a specific field.
Sports is another great field of collection. Materials are available for all the sports. Areas include the Hall of fame cards, Baseball cards, photographs (signed, inscribed, and annotated) and sports memorabilia (baseballs, basketballs, boxing gloves, etc.).
[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Check completed with a typewriter and signed by the superstar actress Greta Garbo (1905-1990) in 1963
HISTORIC DOCUMENTS FOR SALE
Collectors can always buy historical documents for sale with reputable autograph dealers who clearly focus on history and not on current celebrities. It is very easy to distinguish the 2 types of dealers when you browse around their sites a little bit.
There are some dealers, like us, Tamino Autographs, who sell both current and past/historical figures, and some that focus on either and do not have both in their inventories.
It is very important that the collector selects an area for collection. For sports, for example, individual players, teams, sports figures, coaches, and sports memorabilia make an interesting collection. We strongly recommend you read our articles about Collecting Autographs 101 and our FAQ.
Fraud abounds the autograph collecting world and new collectors and even old collectors can been taken in by clever fakes so always purchase from a reputable source. We again recommend you read our blog articles regarding this issues.
- Autograph Value - How to Find It (Blog Article)
- What Are the Factors that Determine Autograph Values? (Blog Article)
- Famous Signatures - Top 100 Celebrity Signatures in History (Blog Article)
- Glossary of Autograph Terms (Blog Article)
Interested in authentic autographs?