New year, new document! This week, I rotated out the document that is on display for patrons and visitors to our library. When trying to decide which item to feature, I went through boxes of materials in our Document Collection (MS0119) looking for inspiration to strike. I repeatedly came across items that were either described as an autograph letter, or just as an autograph. From these, I selected a letter written by Abigail Adams to her son Thomas Boylston Adams and his wife Anne (Harrod) in 1806. At the time, all three were living south of Boston, in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Our holdings include just the last page of the letter, where Abigail comments on daily mundanities, such as washing for "Mr. Adams" and asking whether or not specific items need to be sent from one household to the other. The fondness that Abigail felt for her children is evident in the closing of her letter, as she writes, “my love to your sister, your affectionate, Mother Abigail Adams.”
As previously mentioned, this item is described in our catalog as an autograph letter. The term autograph refers not just to the signature of a famous person, but also to a document that was written entirely by the hand of the signer (rather than a document that has been type written or dictated and then signed). In some instances, the full context of the letter is lost if only the page that included the signature was saved, as is the case with our letter from Abigail to her son and daughter-in-law.
Autograph collections of notable citizens are often found in historical societies and libraries. Abigail's partial letter is just one of many autographs in our collection; among others, we also have the signatures of Josiah Quincy, Jr., Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, and Edwin Booth. Sometimes these signatures are found on the last page of a letter, but they are also frequently found on a slip of paper that just includes the signature, and maybe a quote. Autograph collecting has its roots in Ancient Greece, and a resurgence of the hobby occurred among the leisure class in Europe in the the 1700s. The trend made its way to America in the early 1800s, where it grew in popularity throughout the century. We can speculate that many of the Society's earliest members were autograph collectors, and that is likely how some of these items came to our collection. To complement these autographs, our archives also includes a letter from 1875 where Joseph M. Wightman writes to Dr. John S.H. Foggto report on his efforts to acquire autographs for him. Click here to read a transcription of that letter.
I'll close with a reminder that if there is a notable figure that you're curious about, you can always search our catalog or send me an email to see if we have their autograph in our collection!