Autographs and stamps, autographs on stamps and autographs on covers are all popular collectibles, and not just within our own hobby. Autograph collectors like them as well. It’s hard to know exactly when the collecting of autographs fully took off as a hobby, as there is evidence that people were saving manuscripts and autographs many centuries ago. Most experts agree, however, that by the 1830s people were actively collecting autographs and a marketplace for them was in its infancy. At that time, interest was greatest for dead literary and political icons, but some collectors began seeking out the signatures of their living contemporaries.
By the late Victorian era, virtually any celebrities of note (increasingly including actors and other pop-culture heroes of the day) were barraged by autograph requests – both in person and by mail. As more and more collectors began clamoring for autographs, the demand and market continued to grow until it exploded with the rise of movie stars and sports heroes during the early to mid-20th century.
Like philately, the reasons people collect autographs are varied. Some collect to preserve a bit of history, some wish to categorize and organize and some are “collecting” purely for the potential profit.
However, the broadest and most enduring reason why people collect autographs (particularly in the modern world of celebrity and sports worship) is they serve as tangible evidence of brushes with celebrity; that a collector was close enough to a person of fame to have asked for – and received – an autograph. Again, the motivations are varied; sometimes it comes from a desire for connection; in others it’s an elevation of self-importance (rubbing elbows with the rich and famous); and, for some, it’s simply a fun pursuit.
Occasionally, the worlds of autograph collecting and philately converge, creating philatelic items of interest to autograph collectors and vice versa. In our little world, autograph philately can include signatures or items related to important events or individuals within the hobby (such as designers and engravers of stamps), items created for personal significance or simply autographs of note on philatelic items (or any combination thereof). This last category is by far the largest.
Figure 1. A handwritten letter from Sir Rowland Hill, from 1847
I’d like to start this month with the item shown in Figure 1, an 1847 handwritten letter – ALS in the autograph world (for autographed letter signed) – from Sir Rowland Hill, hero of postal reform and father of the Penny Black (inset). Although the transmittal envelope has long since been lost, what stamp collector wouldn’t like to add a handwritten note from Hill to his or her collection?
Figure 2. This plate block was signed by the stamp’s designer, as well as vignette and lettering engravers.
Figure 2 shows an autograph item far more familiar to many collectors. It is a plate block of the 4½-cent Liberty series sheet stamp (Scott 1037), signed in its margin by designer Charles L. Chickering and engravers Matthew D. Fenton (vignette) and George A. Payne (lettering). While items such as these aren’t rare, they are scarce enough to be considered a prized item in most specialized collections or exhibits.
Figure 3. Thomas Hipschen, who engraved the Herman Melville stamp, signed this block in the margin, next to Mr. ZIP.
Similarly, the Figure 3 Mr. ZIP block of Herman Melville stamps is signed by portrait engraver Thomas Hipschen. Many of these autographed items have been accomplished through personal contact with these individuals.
Figure 4. Howard Koslow, who signed this first day cover, was the designer of both the stamp and the cachet.
Another spin on this idea is illustrated by the cover shown in Figure 4, a cacheted first day cover of the 20-cent Brooklyn Bridge commemorative (Scott 2041), signed by the late Howard Koslow (1924-2016). Koslow, who designed more than 50 U.S. stamps over the course of more than 40 years, designed both the Brooklyn Bridge stamp and the cachet for this cover. This kind of concordance is a bit unusual, but Koslow took a great interest in the stamps he designed and those who collect them.
But let’s take a look at items of personal significance. Most of these are not created with any thought of gain in mind; they provide an opportunity to have a tangible trigger of a pleasant memory. Many of us have had a chance encounter with a celebrity or two in life. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a number of them, both randomly and through my profession. Having a deep respect for the privacy of individuals, I have rarely ever approached or asked for an autograph, even if I am lucky enough to have a short visit. But there are exceptions.
Figure 5. The author’s hand-drawn cachet, with an autograph by Postmaster General Anthony Frank, signed during first day activities related to the 25-cent Honeybee stamp.
In 1988 I was the U.S. reporter for Linn’s Stamp News. I was also still occasionally creating hand-drawn and hand-painted cacheted first day covers. When I received the news that the 25-cent Honeybee stamp would be released at that year’s Omaha Stamp Show (which I would attend), I designed the Figure 5 cachet (all hand-drawn graphite) with as many “bee” connections as I could muster. I took these covers to the show with me, canceled them both officially and unofficially and, at a special luncheon with Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank, I had the opportunity to ask him sign a couple. These are treasured personal keepsakes. As a side note, this was the event where he boldly announced there would be an Elvis Presley stamp (despite objections from the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee).
Figure 6. Noted children’s book author Syd Hoff signed this cover for the author at a local library event. The cover serves as a pleasant reminder of a family activity.
Similarly, the cover shown in Figure 6 became another keepsake of an event. As a child, I enjoyed some of the children’s’ books written and illustrated by Syd Hoff (1912-2004), including Julius, Danny and the Dinosaur and others. As a young father, I enjoyed reading these books to my own children. In early 1989, Hoff visited our local library, where he graciously visited with kids, signed books and talked about his work. To mark that event, I obtained a printed envelope from the library, addressed it to myself, asked Mr. Hoff to sign – which he not only did, but added a drawing – and then mailed it to mark the date.
Figure 7. A Unicover “proof card” served as the perfect medium for a Ray Bradbury autograph. It also served as a catalyst for an ongoing correspondence with the author.
My favorite item of personal significance, however, is shown in Figure 7. It is a Unicover “proof card,” bearing a first-day-canceled Future Mail souvenir sheet of 1989 (Scott C126). It is signed by friend and occasional correspondent, Ray Bradbury (1920-2012).
Even if you are unfamiliar with Bradbury, you have no doubt heard of his work, including Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and many others, as well as the screenplays for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956) and the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The list goes on and on. As a voracious young reader of science fiction and horror, Bradbury became my idol. His particular turns of phrase, sense of irony and underlying humor had me enthralled. It’s safe to say that his work influenced my own writing in many ways. I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to meet him.
So, in 1994, when I found out he would be speaking on “1,001 Ways to Burn a Book” at the University of Dayton (Ohio), I was thrilled. I knew he’d set aside time for chatting and autographs, so I didn’t feel I was intruding. This proof card was ideal, with a perfect space (pun intended) between the Chris Calle illustration and the souvenir sheet. To make a much longer essay of mine short, when my eldest son and I handed Bradbury the proof card, he looked up and said, “Hey, when were these stamps issued? I don’t have them yet,” thus kicking off our infrequent correspondence and me sending him space stamps.
Figure 8. Former Postmaster General James A. Farley signed this souvenir sheet for a polite young collector and continued to carry on a correspondence for a while.
And then there are philatelic items signed by notables. The Figure 8 souvenir sheet was one of a number of items a young collector, Bobby Hayes, was able to get autographed by numerous celebrities and political figures (and the source of my April 2018 “Collecting Coast to Coast” column in The AP). The souvenir sheet, part of the so-called Farley’s Follies issues, has been signed in green by James A. Farley, who was postmaster general when the sheet was issued.
Figure 9. Clare Boothe Luce, known not only as a politician, but as a playwright and author, signed this 1948 Women’s Progress stamp.
Young Hayes even managed to obtain the signature of noted author, politician and feminist Clare Boothe Luce, also the first American woman to ever hold a major ambassador position (to Italy in 1954, later to Brazil). She also was married to publishing magnate Henry Luce of Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated fame. That stamp, signed across the face, on a very appropriately chosen 1948 Women’s Progress issue, is shown in Figure 9. But Hayes was far from alone in his pursuits; there are many others.
Figure 10. This first day cover, more than 25 years in the making, features three different, related first day cancels, as well as a drawing and autograph by Chester Gould, creator of detective Dick Tracy.
A common practice by collectors for many years is to send first day covers and other items to favorite movie stars and others, along with a request for an autograph (or two or three). Most celebrities are gracious enough to oblige. One of my favorites, shown in Figure 10, was created by the late controversial cachet designer Hideaki Nakano.
In this case, Nakano started with a 1968 cacheted 6-cent Walt Disney FDC (not his design), which had been sent at some point by Nakano or someone else to Dick Tracy cartoonist Chester Gould (1900-85), who not only signed the cover, but added a profile drawing of Dick Tracy!
Nakano then added a pair of 13-cent Police Patrol Wagon Transportation coil stamps, when they were released in Anaheim, California (home of Disneyland) on October 29, 1988, bringing into focus the police connection. In 1994, the USPS released the 10-stamp Silent Screen Stars stamps designed by famed caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Nakano added the 29-cent Keystone Cops stamp to this already-busy cover and then sent it off for a third first day cancel, creating a fantastic hand-drawn, themed cover. Two of the stamps added by Nakano bear his signature “HN” perfin design.
Figure 11. Three Hollywood celebrity autographs on first day covers: signatures are from horror movie icon Vincent Price; popular comic and actor Phyllis Diller; and comic actor Chevy Chase.
Understandably, one of the more popular first day covers used for sending to celebrities is the 10-cent D.W. Griffith issue of 1975. Shown (Figure 11) are three examples of this issue signed by horror icon Vincent Price, stand-up comic and actor Phyllis Diller and comedian Chevy Chase, illustrating the range of autographs found on these covers.
Figure 12. The “grandfather of Lithuanian basketball,” Frank Lubin, signed this 1991 first day cover. Lubin won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympic Games.
But not all autograph requests are sent to superstars. Figure 12, shows what is – to me – one of the more touching autographed covers I’ve seen, found on a 1991 first day cover for the 29-cent Basketball issue. The cover (one of several) has a simple rubber-stamped cachet and was sent to Frank J. Lubin (1910-99), who kindly signed the covers and printed “1936 Gold in Basketball” below his signature.
Lubin, American-born son of Lithuanian parents, was working as a 20th Century Fox stagehand when he joined the studio’s Amateur Athletic Union team, which qualified for the first Olympic basketball tournament in 1936, where the team won the gold medal. During the games he was invited to go to Lithuania and become the country’s first coach of its national team, where he acted as player-coach. This was fairly short-lived, as Lubin and his team had to flee Italy (where they were competing in 1939) to escape the Nazis. Lubin and his family fled to California soon after, before the Soviet invasion of Lithuania in 1940. He is regarded as the “grandfather of Lithuanian basketball.” He was no doubt pleased to be remembered more than a half-century later.
Figure 13. Mail from celebrities is decidedly harder to find than covers addressed to them. This cover, from film star Betty Grable, was pressed into service in 1977 to create a most unusual FDC.
Another popular collecting area is celebrity mail. It is not difficult to find covers addressed to celebrities, but far less so finding mail from them. Figure 13 (shown front and back) features a 1944 cover from actress Betty Grable to a soldier at a hospital annex. She was no doubt touched by a letter from him and responded. Bernard Blier (not the actor) was, at the time, at the Regional Hospital Annex at Camp Barkeley, Texas, where he served as editor of the camp’s publication, The Crutch.
Unfortunately the contents from Grable apparently no longer exist, but the reverse side of the cover was used by a collector at a much later date to create a most unusual FDC for the 1977 Talking Pictures commemorative (Scott 1727), immortalizing this soldier’s brush with celebrity.