Archives Month Staff Picks, Part 2: Famous Signatures

October is Archives Month, and to celebrate, we’ve had some of our staff members in Special Collections pick an item from the collections they oversee that they feel is underused or underappreciated. In this post, we will look at autograph books from the Manuscripts Collection and a letter signed by Booker T. Washington from the Local History Archives.

Cover of the Lee Anderson Papers‘ Book of Gems.

Washington University Manuscripts Collection

Joel Minor, Curator of Manuscripts & Modern Literature Collections

Washington University’s Manuscripts Collection contains a broad range of materials dating back as far as the 2nd century BC, but its largest group of materials is the Modern Literature Collection. This collection was created in 1964 to archive the work of contemporary English and American writers, and today houses the manuscripts, correspondence, proofs, drafts and ephemera of over 175 contemporary authors, presses, and journals. The curator in charge of Washington University’s extensive manuscript collection is Joel Minor.

Two Historic Autograph Books

Joel has a lot to choose from when it comes to strange objects in his collection. James Merrill’s death mask, for instance, is often cited as one of the stranger things in Washington University’s collection and currently serves as the profile picture of the Modern Literature Collection’s Facebook page (which you should definitely follow). For this post, however, Joel has decided to highlight a lesser known, but perhaps equally interesting item in his collection: a 19th century autograph book from the Walter H. Cummings Collection that has been signed and sometimes inscribed by some of the most prominent figures in 19th century America.

A 19th century autograph book from the Walter H. Cummings Collection,1872.

Some of the more well-known signatories of this book include Susan B. Anthony, Jefferson Davis, Ralph Waldo Emerson and President Millard Fillmore, just to name a few. The pages above show the signatures of the Secretary of War William Worth Belknap, the famous abolitionist and writer Fredrick Douglas (who wrote, “Liberty for men, liberty for women, liberty for each for all and forever”), Congressman George Robertson, author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), cartoonist Thomas Nast, Postmaster General John Angel, James Creswell and poet Henry Longfellow.

A page from the Lee Anderson Papers‘ Book of Gems featuring the signatures of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, 1958.

Washington University’s Manuscripts Collection also contains another, more recent autograph book from the 20th century in its Modern Literature Collection. This book from the Lee Anderson Papers is called “The Book of Gems,” and has been signed by a number of prominent poets, who often include at least a line or two of their poetry on its pages. Notable contributors include, but are not limited to, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Isabella Gardner, Howard Nemerov, William Jay Smith, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, James Merrill, and Mona Van Duyn. The page above features the signatures of Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, and the page below contains Robert Lowell’s signature along with a manuscript copy of his poem, “Inauguration Day: January 1953.”

A page from the Lee Anderson Papers‘ Book Of Gems containing Robert Lowell’s signature and his poem, “Inauguration Day: January 1953.” 1959.

The Local History Archives

Miranda Rectenwald, Curator of Local History

The Local History Archives focus on late 19th and 20th century topics of St. Louis history. These collections include the archives of local business, documents on transportation and urban planning, political records, and archives on local architecture, among other subjects. The current curator overseeing this diverse collection is Miranda Rectenwald.

Booker T. Washington and the Urban League of St. Louis

Miranda’s choice of an underappreciated and underused aspect of her collection was the records of The Committee for Social Service Among Colored People, which was founded in 1910 and served as an early precursor to the Urban League of St. Louis to improve the socio-economic and cultural conditions of African-Americans in the city.

A letter from  Booker T. Washington’s secretary, noting their expectations for his upcoming visit, July 3, 1911

Miranda notes that a particularly interesting item in this collection is a series of correspondence between Booker T. Washington and Roger Nash Baldwin, one of the founders of The Committee for Social Service Among Colored People. Baldwin had come to St. Louis to teach sociology at Washington University in 1906, initiating the University’s sociology department, and would later found the ACLU, making him an important figure in University, local, and national history.

A letter from Roger Baldwin to Booker T. Washington, asking him to speak with the Committee for Social Service Among Colored People, June 24, 1911

Above and below, you can see correspondence between Roger Baldwin and Booker T. Washington and his staff at the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, requesting that Washington speak with the Committee during an upcoming visit to the city. The letter below bares Washington’s signature, while the two-page letter above signed by his secretary expresses his hope that white people in St. Louis will be interested in hearing him speak.

A letter to Roger Baldwin of the Committee for Social Service Among Colored People containing Booker T. Washington’s signature. June 29th, 1911.

Further Reading

You can see more staff picks celebrating our archives in last week’s post, Archives Month Staff Picks, Part 1: Scrapbooks. Make sure to check in next week for our third and final installment of this series!

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.