The history of autograph collecting through the ages

Recently, I examined a small “Waterman” autograph album with an interesting advertising insert. The prominent fountain pen company was advertising an autograph contest in which over 150,000 young collectors participated. An incredible number of active autograph collectors during what was probably the most popular period for this fascinating hobby. I took this as an opportunity to conduct more intensive research - starting from the origins of this hobby to its future development...

As with so many other 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, which means “written with one’s own hand.”

Here is a brief look at how autograph collecting has evolved over the last few millennia.



If we go back a few thousand years, the world was unimaginably different.

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

Signatures were reserved for the ruling classes, and as such, they were powerful symbols by their very nature. They had the power to send armies into battle, to condemn (or excuse) a dissident, and to completely change the way a society functioned.

The ancient Greeks built the Library of Pergamum in the 3rd century BC.

In Greece and Rome, the two pillars of antiquity, rulers usually sealed their decrees with a wax seal. Occasionally, they signed their names in ink.

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

Unfortunately, not a single signature of an ancient Greek or Roman ruler has survived to this day. Autograph collecting died when Rome fell in 476 AD, plunging Europe into the dark ages.

Revival Collecting autographs became fashionable again with the rise of the Renaissance (1300-1600). During this time, literacy rates increased throughout Europe. One result was the alba amicorum (friendship album), which probably originated in Germany. These are considered to be the first autograph albums in the world. The earliest examples date from the mid-15th century. Wealthy travelers asked the personalities they met along the way to make entries in these specially made and sometimes elaborately designed poetry books.   The main idea was to show the album as a testimonial to prove how well-connected they were with high-ranking people.   Autographs People have been collecting autographs of famous personalities since the 16th century. People were also not above removing signatures or other handwritten inscriptions from their original intended context. For example, they removed pages from family registers and cut signatures out of documents.One example of this practice is the Dresden Reformer’s Bible. The Enlightenment came in the 17th century. Culture and science began to have a greater influence on society. Signatures of important historical figures were in high demand among the European intelligentsia. Among the most prominent autograph collectors were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Stefan Zweig, Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, Eduard Mörike, Johannes Brahms and Elise Freiin von Koenig-Warthausen. Karl von Holtei also collected autographs. The first specialized publications on the subject of autograph collecting were published in Germany and France.  


One example is the Handbuch für Autographensammler [Handbook for Autograph Collectors] by Johannes Günther which was published in 1876(!) and contains 290 pages. It has been since been digitized and is available on the Internet as an e-book.

In the rare book trade, you can often still find the fascinating book L’Autographe 1864 which documents three years of issues of the magazine of the same name in hardback.

If you are interested in additional literature on the subject, I recommend our list at 

Also of interest in this context is the clergyman and writer William Buell Sprague (1795-1876, New York). Sprague was probably the first person to collect all the autographs of the signers of the United States Declaration of Independence. He completed this task by February 1833 (according to his correspondence at that time with his friend Jared Sparks). At the time of his death, his collection included nearly 100,000 autographs(!). He left what was probably the largest private collection of autographs in the world to his son. *the whereabouts of this collection is unknown*  The autograph trade

In the 19th century, auction houses discovered the autograph business and began a brisk trade in autographs. Karl Ernst HenriciIn 1908, Henrici went into business for himself when he took over the Spittaschen portrait warehouse and the autograph holdings of Otto August Schulz (1803-1860) in Berlin and published a series of excellent auction catalogs together with the leading auction houses of Liepmannssohn, Stargardt and Boerner. His achieved his greatest successes during the inflationary period after the First World War. Like no other, he knew how to persuade collectors and heirs to part with their possessions and how to interest well-funded groups of buyers. Henrici used his network of friends and agents throughout Germany to develop the company into the leading art and autograph auction house and was entrusted with the sale of almost all major autograph collections.  Günther Mecklenburg (1898-1984) wrote the first modern handbook in the field: Vom Autographen-sammeln [On Collecting Autographs]. It was published by Stargardt in 1963 and has been out of print for a long time and is only available as an antiquarian book. You can read it here:  As society became less centralized (and more money was being spent on the hobby), the definition of a significant person expanded and the autographs of musicians, sports heroes and writers became more in demand. In the 20th century, the increasing popularity of collecting autographs led to the emergence of dedicated auction houses. Today, a vast number of autographs are sold each year and the industry is worth billions of dollars. The times may have changed, but the reason we collect autographs remains the same. Autographs provide an unparalleled connection to some of the most fascinating characters in history.    My own assessment is that the most popular period for collecting autographs was the first half of the 19th century.



LE. Waterman Company was one of the leading fountain pen manufacturers of the time

In 1932, the company launched a major campaign in which 150,000 boys and girls under the age of 16 participated. As part of a competition, autographs were to be collected in special books - to be filled with as many autographs as possible - and then sent to the company.  

Each child had six months to collect the autographs of famous people and submit them to the L. E. Waterman Company. There were 333 prizes, 133 of which were cash prizes ($1,000 as the grand prize). One hundred prizes were fountain pens - the No. 94 Pen for boys and a Lady Patricia Pen for girls - and 100 were Waterman mechanical pencils . ???   


Page three under the heading “Entering the names in your album” is particularly interesting. Of course, it would be embarrassing to ask for an autograph without a pen, so it makes sense to have a Waterman handy, filled with Waterman Blue Black Ink, of course!  Paragraph 9 is also interesting.

There is no guarantee that the albums will be returned.   An Internet search for these albums yields an interesting result. Some of the Waterman albums that have appeared on the market so far have been appraised at high values.Some of them have sold for handsome sums:

Sotheby’s auction for a Waterman Album containing the autographs of 21 of the 1932 New York Yankees for $4,250. 

Heritage sold this album for $3,883.75 Highlights: Babe Ruth, Connie Mack (with secretarial Cochrane, Grove, Simmons and Foxx), Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Gene Sarazen, Calvin Coolidge, Ellsworth Vines, Babe Didrikson (secretarial), Johnny Weismuller and James Montgomery Flagg.




At RRAuction, this Waterman album sold for $6,991.20 Waterman’s autograph album, 5 x 7.25, belonging to a young man named William Tierney of Weston, West Virginia, with 324 clipped ink and pencil signatures, almost all on clipped slips affixed to the inside pages. Signers include: Calvin Coolidge, several members of Herbert Hoover’s cabinet, Benjamin Cardozo, Frank Kellogg, Diego Rivera, Maxfield Parrish, James Montgomery Flagg, Rose O’Neill (with a pre-printed sketch of Kewpie), George McManus, the Mayo Brothers, John Henry Kellogg, Jerome Kern (adding an AMQS), Irving Berlin, Carl Sandburg. 

Waterman exhibited the winning albums and the rest of the Top 30 from the contest at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and then returned them to the collectors.     I wonder which autographs were in the winning entry?


Autograph collecting, shows and commercial signing events.

The original idea behind celebrity autographs was that you would meet a celebrity and ask them to sign a photograph, a program book or even just a piece of paper. This was proof that you had met that person. Signatures with a personal message used to be the best because it meant that not only did you meet the celebrity, but that they also took the time to ask your name. When we were children, we all had autograph albums and most of the signatures were from our friends and the occasional “important” person we met.

Today, things have changed. Autograph albums are no longer in fashion and “personalized messages” now cost money at paid signing events.


Commercial autograph events

SITTING BULL and the first paid signing events at the BUFFALO BILL - WILD WEST SHOW.

Sitting Bull was a tribal chief and medicine man of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux Indians. Primarily a spiritual leader, he resisted US Government policies for years. After the military suppression of the last Indian uprisings, to which he had contributed substantially, he became known, among other things, for his appearances at Wild West shows and for advocating reconciliation with former enemies.

Wild West shows were a major worldwide attraction from the 1870s through the second decade of the 20th century. The most successful of all was Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, made possible because of the fame of Buffalo Bill (William F.) Cody.

Sitting Bull learned to write his name after realizing that he could sell his autograph.

His contract with the Buffalo Bill Show, archived at the Garryowen Museum, stipulated that Sitting Bull would receive $50 per week for four months, plus a $125 signing bonus. The contract includes the following addendum: Sitting Bull is to have sole rights to sell his autograph and photographs. (The contract is in the Garryowen Museum.)

Sitting Bull charged $1.50 for his autograph.


Autograph shows today

There are sports and celebrity venues where stars will sign something for you, for a fee. If you want them to sign “To Ted” or something similar, it will probably cost you an additional 15 dollars. Most celebrities get $25 to $500 for their signatures. Hall of Famers, like Willie Mays or performer Dave Prowse (Darth Vader of Star Wars), make more money at shows than they did during their active careers.

The German Comic Con is currently trying to sign Arnold Schwarzenegger. The rate for his autograph would be 299 euros and 499 euros for a photo. The “Diamond Pass” combination (autograph + photo) would cost 749 euros – a savings of about 50 euros.


The future: is the autograph dying out?

It’s no longer enough for stars just to sign autographs. Fans want photos of themselves with the celebrity. This could change the artist scene from the ground up.

Multiple Grammy winner Taylor Swift reportedly doesn’t have to sign autographs anymore. “I haven’t been asked for my autograph since the iPhone with camera was invented,” the American singer writes. “The only souvenir kids want these days is a selfie.”

The band Tokio Hotel has had a similar experience: “Today, people look at you like you’re strange when you offer to sign something for them,” says singer Bill Kaulitz. “After all, we come from a different time. When we became famous, there was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. We were still using autograph cards.”

The company “” is taking a different approach by offering live stream events and exclusive Facebook chat autograph sessions with celebrities on the Internet.

For me, a personality’s handwritten signature is a connection and a ticket for a journey back in time.  Even if the popularity of collecting handwritten signatures has decreased significantly, one hopes that future generations can also experience the personal magic of handwriting.

Today’s social media networking cannot replace this “future antiquity - handwriting.” Handwriting allows us to engage more closely with role models and the stories that have decisively changed and shaped our society.

I think it is worthwhile to collect and save these original sources and documents so that they can be appreciated by future generations. This cannot be replaced by taking selfies with your favorite celebrity, as is the popular trend in the media today.