Have you ever wondered how someone gets interested in collecting? Does it begin when you are young – collecting signed baseballs, pictures of favorite singers or love letters you found in your attic? Maybe your passion for reading about American History draws you to collecting pieces of that history. Retired history professor, Francis J. Murray wrote an article, Presidential Autographs: an Unintended Collection for the Fall 2017 edition of the society journal, Manuscripts sharing his life of collecting. It is a grand story of interest and opportunity.
Presidential Autographs: An Unintended Collection by Francis J. Murray
There are those moments in life when a single comment can bring surprising results. Such is the case when I entered my Modern European History class of twenty-five students in 1971. The subject of the class was the termination of World War II. In the wake of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, Vice-President Harry S. Truman became commander in chief. Truman was left to bring the war to an end and did. A simple statement by this instructor brought about surprising results: “If Presidents are going to be ranked in importance and the yardstick used for measurement is accomplishments, then President Truman would rank in the top ten.”1 I then offered what I thought were Truman’s three major accomplishments: first, successfully concluding the horrific war; second, approving the use of the atomic bomb; and, third, rebuilding Europe through the Marshall Plan. When the class ended John Fircha, an amiable junior history major, approached the podium and said: “Professor Murray, I have two signatures of President Truman and I’ll be glad to give you one if you like.” This was such a generous gesture from a student, not to be refused. Shortly thereafter I received a white card with the signatures of Harry S. Truman and Bess Wallace Truman. What I did not know at the time is that the student had been collecting celebrity autographs for years. The card was taken home and put in a safe place with no other thought given to it.
Unknown to me at that time, I was infected with the virus of collecting, which would remain dormant for two decades before the full-blown disease surfaced with no known antidote to eliminate it until, of course, when one leaves terra firma. Other collectors may have a similar story about their own start. Other than possessing a few autographs from years before, I had no interest in collecting autographs. As a teenager, I was mildly thrilled to meet the actor Keye Luke, Charlie Chan’s “Number One Son,” at a local theater where I obtained a signed photo. Beyond that, writing to the actress Loretta Young, greatly admired by so many, resulted in a signed photograph. While serving in the U.S. Air Force and stationed at Kadena Air Base, located in Okinawa, I was fortunate to meet Archbishop Francis C. Spellman when he stopped at the base during his visit to the Far East over Christmas 1954. He was kind to sign my prayer book, which I value to this day.
This journey of collecting autographs has gone through stages from neophyte to seasoned collector. The quest to complete a “Presidential Collection” was the personal satisfaction of capturing a “Corner of History,” and doing so with limited means. Over the course of time it meant gaining an education, which happened through interfacing with dealers, bidding at auctions, visiting flea markets, pouring over magazines and price guides, writing to presidents, consulting archives and libraries, and becoming a member of the Manuscript Society. With a quest that unwittingly began in 1971 with the Harry and Bess Truman autographs, it reached its conclusion in 2006 with the signature of John Adams.
To read the entire article and see the images he discusses in his article click here……
This article is one of three found in the Fall 2017 issue of Manuscripts. The others articles, Passport Through Time: A Conservator’s Role in the Life of a Manuscript by Alexandrea Cattanea Pizza; Aaron Burr, the Rising Star Who would Fall, Writes to James Monroe, the Venerated President to be by Douglass F. Rohrman plus Auctions Trends, Books Reviews and more are all found in the quarterly journal produced by the Manuscript Society and one of the benefits of being a member. Join today.