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The Language of Autograph Collecting
A system has developed over many decades for the description of manuscripts and documents. It evolved from the book trade, which until recent years did most of the marketing of historical paper. In the past twenty years or so, there has been an explosion of interest in the manuscript field with the appearance of literally scores of new dealers who confine their interests exclusively to autographs. This has led to a greater need for a standardized system of communication among those dealing in manuscripts. As with other disciplines, the manuscript field has developed its own language for describing autographs. This includes abbreviations and appropriate definitions of terminology used. Abbreviations are especially helpful to dealers in preparing catalogues and to librarians in cataloging accessions, and are essential for the proper exchange of information between those in the field. Those who utilize this language include collectors, dealers, archivists, librarians and historians delving into paper research material. Without a good descriptive system, often much can be left to the imagination of the buyer and collector.
In an attempt to codify and provide a guide for cataloging archival manuscript material, Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules (AACR) was published in 1967. In 1983 the Library of Congress modified Chapter 4 of AACR 2 and published Archives, Personal Papers and Manuscripts: A Cataloging Manual for Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries ( APPM ). 1 In 1988 the American Library Association published a revised AACR 2. This became the standard system used by the Library of Congress, Society of American Archivists (SAA) and others to catalog archival papers. APPM was revised again by Steven L. Hensen under the auspices of SAA and was published in 1989. 2
Unfortunately for collectors and dealers of manuscripts and documents, APPM has been oriented primarily toward cataloging and retrieval of archival collections. Less emphasis is placed on detailed descriptions of single items. APPM 's primary purpose was to create a dependable system for cataloging material of historical value, essentially ignoring intrinsic monetary value. As such, little attention was directed toward describing the condition of manuscripts and documents or other features, which are of greater interest to private collectors.
Accordingly, the Manuscript Society prepared The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents 3 which was designed primarily for the collector, institutional buyer and dealer. The rules and criteria elaborated in APPM are far too cumbersome for descriptive cataloging of autograph material in the marketplace. Extensive use has been made, however, of APPM and the abbreviations in AACR 2 in developing these criteria, in order to maintain uniformity in the archival field. The Manuscript Society Criteria also include abbreviations, which have been in common usage for decades, many of which were enumerated in the Glossary of a previous publication of the Manuscript Society. 4
With established definitions and abbreviations, it is much easier to communicate with others in the field. By using this language, the collector and institutional buyer will have a better description of manuscripts he wishes to acquire, and the dealer will feel more comfortable in marketing his material.
The most important word that is encountered in the field of paper collecting is autograph. It may be used as a noun or a verb. It is not an adjective. Often some define autograph as only a signature. This is not correct as it literally means "written in one's own hand." The writing may be done with pen, pencil, chalk, paint, crayon or any other writing device. The product may be a signature, letter, document, manuscript, musical score, drawing, map or any other creation on a secondary medium. It would even include sky-writing, words scratched on a frosted window or in beach sand.
Until recent decades, those who have collected autographs have been primarily hobbyists and historians, who have amassed their collections with relatively meager resources. In recent years the emphasis on collecting autographs has shifted from an inexpensive and enjoyable pastime toward investment goals. A handwritten souvenir excerpt from Lincoln's second inaugural address, written by him, which might have sold for a few thousand dollars ten years ago, recently sold at an auction house for $1,320,000.00. Extraordinary! Yes! But rapidly escalating prices have affected the entire field of collecting. The value of an autograph depends upon amount of writing in the hand of the author, scarcity of the author's material and the historically important content of the piece. Thus, a signature alone would command the least value and a scarce handwritten letter or manuscript of important historic content would have the greatest value. Because of the high cost of better material, signatures alone have commanded disproportionately higher prices. Many collectors can no longer afford more than a signature. About fifteen years ago Mary Benjamin, an outstanding dealer and pioneer in the autograph field, noted that a handwritten letter generally cost about ten times that of a signature. The ratio is now about five to one, and in some cases even less.
The word document comes from the Latin documentum, meaning official paper. A document is anything printed, typed or handwritten, relied upon to record or prove something. It would include such things as land deeds, promissory notes, checks, military orders, appointments, provenances and so on. It may be used as a noun or transitive verb.
The use of the word manuscript is more difficult to define in modern terms. The word is derived from the Latin manu scriptus which means handwritten. It may be used as a noun or as an adjective. In modern usage it has come to include typewritten material, but not printed material. No consideration has yet been given to the role of dot matrix and laser printers in this definition. The terms documents and manuscripts are often used interchangeably. In 1947 Colton Storm and Howard Peckham described manuscript thusly:
There is no limit on subject matter; a manuscript may be official or personal, literary, reportorial, legal or commercial. In America, there is no limit on the date or time of a manuscript. It may have been written in ancient Egypt or modern Detroit. So long as it is not printed, it is a manuscript. The typewriter has complicated things somewhat, but a typed page is still called a manuscript. A photocopy of a manuscript, however, is no longer a manuscript, but a reproduction of it. European usage confines the word manuscript to things written before the invention of printing. Pages written by hand since 1450 are called "documents," or sometimes "modern manuscripts." 4
Other definitions are less controversial but essential to the understanding of the manuscript field. They are listed below as they relate to manuscripts.
  • Address leaf: The fourth page of a folded leaf of a letter on which an address is written.
  • Archive: A place in which public records or historical documents are preserved.
  • Archivist: A person in charge of an archive.
  • Autograph: See definition in text.
  • Broadside: A sizeable sheet of paper or cardboard on which there is a handwritten or printed message, usually for public display.
  • Browning: The process of tannish discoloration of paper, most pronounced in paper with high acid content such as newsprint, and other paper produced from wood pulp. Browning is accelerated under the influence of light; it is also called age-toning, or yellowing.
  • Buffering: A process in which a chemical capable of neutralizing both acids and bases is introduced into paper; the paper is thus protected from future environmental damage.
  • Cabinet photograph: A photograph mounted on a heavy stock card with an image area of about 5.5" x 4", popular in the late 19th century. The name of the photographer is often imprinted on the lower margin; they are often signed by the subject.
  • Cachet: A design or inscription on an envelope to commemorate a postal or philatelic event. They are often signed by celebrities or used on First Day Covers.
  • Carte de visite photograph: A photograph mounted on a heavy stock card with an image measuring about 3.5" x 2.5". The photographer's name was often imprinted on the verso. These were very popular "calling cards" in the latter half of the 19th century and were often signed by the subject.
  • Circular date stamp: See Postal markings.
  • Contemporary copy: See Copies of manuscripts and documents.
  • Copies of manuscripts and documents: Fair copy: A neat and exact copy of a letter, literary work or document in the hand of the author or a clerk. These were saved as carbon copies were in later years. At times authors make fair copies as souvenirs for others. Letterpress copy: The process of transferring the ink from an original letter, dampened with water, by placing it on a piece of thin tissue paper and pressing them together with a hand press. The resulting copy tends to be fragile. If too much water is used the ink tends to bleed. If too little water is used, the copy may be hard to read. In time erosion of the transferred writing often takes place from acidic inks. Bound volumes of these sheets were known as Letterpress copy books. True copy: An exact copy of an original document in another person's hand. These were often made by a clerk from original public governmental records, done on a contemporary basis or at times many years later. Contemporary copy: Prior to the days of letterpress copies, carbon paper or electrostatic copiers, a need existed to retain the information in the original. A contemporary copy is one known to have been made by the author or in another person's hand at or about the same time as the original. Retained copy: A draft, carbon, letterpress, fair copy or photocopy of a letter or document in the hand of the author, serving as a record of the communication or transaction.
  • Cover: An envelope, outside of a folded letter or postal wrapper.
  • Deacidification: A chemical process in which an alkali is introduced into paper to neutralize the harmful effects of acid, which is present in most papers.
  • Deed: A legal document recording the transfer of property (usually land) from one party to another, signed by the seller and witnesses. These often appear in autograph collections because of the famous names, which can appear on these transactions. They are frequently referred to as indentures, from the early practice of making two "indented" copies of the deed. (This was done by laying one on top of the other, and cutting the edges of both with a wavy line; by comparison later on, their authenticity would be readily apparent to others).
  • Docket: An identifying statement about a document or letter placed on its outer surface or cover, often for filing purposes. It was usually written by the recipient and included the author, date and sometimes a note about the contents.
  • Document: See definition in text.
  • Duodecimo: See Sizes.
  • Encapsulation: A technique for preserving a manuscript by placing it between sheets of Mylar (an acid-free product) and sealing the edges with thin strips of double-faced tape. Prior to encapsulation the piece must be deacidified and buffered so that it will not self-destruct in this closed environment. The document may be easily removed at any time.
  • Endorsement: "To put on the back." A notation or signature by the recipient on the back of a letter, check or other document received. It is often a comment forwarding the piece to a third party; it is frequently seen on military documents.
  • Facsimile: An exact copy or reproduction of an original letter, document or manuscript. Facsimiles may be in the form of photographs, electrostatic photo-copies, tracings or products of other mechanical means of duplication.
  • Fair copy: See Copies of manuscripts and documents.
  • First day cover: An envelope bearing a stamp, canceled on the first official day of its use. The envelope often bears a cachet related to the issue. These are frequently signed by celebrities, usually in some way connected with the stamp or cachet.
  • Folio: This term is derived from the Latin folium. It has multiple uses. It may mean a leaf, especially of a book or manuscript, a page number, a sheet of paper folded once, a case or folder of loose papers, the size of a piece of paper cut in two from a sheet used as a manuscript or page, a book printed on folio pages or a book of largest size. See Sizes.
  • Foxing: The discoloration of a manuscript by spotty or diffuse yellowish brown stains. These are often due to imbedded metal particles or the growth of molds in association with conditions of high humidity.
  • Frank: The signature of a sender on an envelope, wrapper or folded letter indicating the right of the sender to free mailing. It usually applies to elected federal officeholders and to the military and civil branches of the federal government when mailing official papers. The signature is usually in the upper right hand corner of an envelope. In the 18th century it was often placed on the left side of the address portion of a folded letter. The term free frank is redundant since frank, derived from the French means free. The signature may be authentic, printed or rubber-stamped.
  • Holograph: A noun or adjective indicating that a written piece is entirely in the hand of the author. It need not be signed. Many times it is synonymous with autograph. It is useful in describing a section of a letter or manuscript - e.g. "a holograph address on a cover" or "a holograph postscript" on a typed letter.
  • Indenture: See Deed.
  • Inlay: The technique of gluing the edges of a manuscript or letter on the back of an opening of a larger and stronger sheet, for protection in handling. The opening is a fraction of an inch smaller than the document, much like a mat used in framing. This technique was used mostly in the nineteenth century and is no longer recommended.
  • Japanese paper: A very fine mesh paper which is acid-free and semi-transparent and is used as backing to repair weakened or broken documents. Sometimes Japanese paper is used to laminate a document, but since it is semi-opaque, this obscures the writing to some degree. It is used extensively in libraries.
  • Lamination: This is a process wherein a manuscript or sheet is reinforced by gluing sheets of Japanese paper or silk mesh on one or both sides with acid-free wheat paste or methyl cellulose. Silking has been pretty well abandoned as a modern technique, for even the silk browns and gets brittle with age. If the silk must be removed at a later date, it can usually be done by soaking it off in water. Another form of laminating is with plastic such as is done with credit cards, identification cards etc. This is to be deplored. The document becomes permanently incarcerated in an acidic environment.
  • Leaf: Something suggestive of a botanical leaf. A part of a book or folded sheet containing a page on each side. It may exhibit printing or writing. An unfolded leaf has two sides or pages. A leaf folded over and over again may bear many pages, depending on the number of folds. See Sizes.
  • Legal size: A standard paper size, 8.5" x 14", often used for legal documents. See also Letter size.
  • Letter: A direct or personal written, typewritten or printed message addressed to a person or organization, usually with a formal salutation and a complimentary close. In modern times letters are generally enclosed in sealed envelopes and are delivered by hand or through the mails. Prior to 1840 separate envelopes were uncommon. A letter was usually written on a single folded leaf, leaving the fourth side (page) for the address. In most cases the letter was then folded four times, twice horizontally and twice vertically. The resulting folded letter had an address portion on one side; the other side bore a wax seal to hold the folds in place.
  • Letter book: This is a bound volume of lined or unlined pages on which letters have been written. They may be drafts or fair copies written by the author or a clerk. A letter book may also be a volume of original letters bound by the recipient.
  • Letterpress copy: See Copies of manuscripts and documents.
  • Letterpress copy-book: See Copies of manuscripts and documents.
  • Letter sheet: A sheet of stationery that can be folded and sealed to form its own envelope. The letter is inside and the address is on the outside.
  • Letter size: A standard paper size, 8.5" x 11". See also Legal size.
  • Manuscript: See definition in text.
  • Memorandum: An informal record or a written reminder. It may be an informal diplomatic or interoffice communication that may contain directive, advisory or informative material. It is often headed "Memo" or "Memorandum."
  • Monogram: A sign of identity usually formed by the combination of initials of a name.
  • Monograph: A learned treatise on a small area of learning or a written account of a single thing.
  • Mount: In the manuscript field it means the preparation of a document for examination or display by attaching it to pages (autograph books), cardboard or another media with the use of glue or adhesive hinges. Since many glues, hinges, mounting boards and album leaves are acidic, this practice is no longer recommended.
  • Musical quote: An excerpt from a musical score, often prepared as a souvenir by a composer.
  • Muster roll: A register or list of the officers and men in a military or ship's company.
  • Note: This may be a short informal letter, usually lacking a salutation or complimentary closing. It may also be a Memorandum, a condensed or informal record, a brief comment or explanation, a printed comment or reference set apart from the text, a written promise to pay a debt, a piece of paper money, a formal diplomatic communication or a scholarly or technical essay shorter than an article and restricted in scope.
  • Octavo: See Sizes.
  • Page: A single side of a leaf or one of the leaves of a book. In the manuscript field it generally refers to the sides of each leaf.
  • Papers: A collection of printed or handwritten sheets. It may include letters, manuscripts or documents.
  • Paraph: A handwritten addition to or below a signature in the form of a flourish. These were very common in earlier centuries and served as an identifying statement by the author. Whether designed as such or not, they also serve to make forgeries more difficult.
  • Parchment: The skin of a sheep or goat that is prepared as a writing surface. There are also tough papers made to resemble parchment, also called parchment. Vellum is fine-grained unsplit lambskin, kidskin or calfskin similarly prepared for writing.
  • Patriotic cover or letterhead: These are letterheads or envelopes bearing an illustration or Cachet of a patriotic nature, frequently used during the American Civil War.
  • Pendant seal: An official seal on a legal document, usually on an indenture, attached to the bottom of the document by a braided cord, ribbon or strip of parchment. They are usually large and quite heavy and used mostly in early European documents and on papal bulls.
  • Postal markings: Prior to the introduction of adhesive postage stamps, notations on covers were made by the postmaster which included the town of origin in script, or with a hand-stamp, usually incorporating the month and day and sometimes the year. The rate marking was either in script or in hand-stamp form. The word "PAID" indicated payment by the sender. Absence of the word "PAID" indicated that the postage was to be collected from the addressee upon delivery. Envelopes were first mass-produced in this country in 1848, at which time folded letters began to be abandoned. After the introduction of adhesive stamps in 1851, they were canceled with hand-stamps, usually circular, with the town of origin and date enclosed in the circle. These are referred to as circular date stamps.
  • Provenance: A statement or evidence establishing the record of ownership of an object, manuscript or document. A provenance is especially important in identifying stolen papers. The provenance may in itself be historically important.
  • Quarto: See Sizes.
  • Recto: The right-hand page of a book or the side of a leaf (as a manuscript) that is read first.
  • Replevin: A court-ordered recovery by a person or an institution of goods or chattels claimed to be wrongfully taken. This has often applied to actions to recover manuscripts.
  • Retained copy: See Copies of manuscripts and documents.
  • Script: This word may be used as a noun or transitive verb. A script may be something handwritten; the written text of a stage play, a screenplay or broadcast; a style of printed letters that resembles handwriting. Script can be used interchangeably with manuscript but does not include typewritten letters or documents as is the case with manuscript. Thus script may be used to identify a letter signed by an author, the text of which is in the hand of another (e.g. a script letter signed).
  • Sea letter: Documents, usually in four languages: English, French, Spanish and Dutch - signed by the President of the United States and the Secretary of State. They were often called ship's passports and identified the master of the vessel, the name the vessel, its tonnage, origin and destination of the voyage. These letters were carried by all vessels sailing from the United States, except for those sailing into the Mediterranean Sea. The latter carried special passports with scalloped top margins, as were required by the Bey of Algiers, in line with his treaty of 1795 with the United States.
  • Signature: The name of a person written in his own hand.
  • Signer: In the manuscript field, this word, capitalized, refers to Signers of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Signum: A sign used in place of a Signature, originally in the shape of a cross, but also in other forms. In modern times a signum may be used by an illiterate person who makes "His X Mark".
  • Silking: See Lamination.
  • Sixteenmo: See Sizes.
  • Sizes: For many years the measurements of the size of manuscripts and documents was based on printer and bookseller terminology. These are dependent on the number of times a single sheet, or Leaf, is folded or cut to produce pages of a book. If a sheet is folded once to produce two leaves (four sides or pages), the book is a Folio; if the sheet is folded twice to produce eight pages, it is a Quarto; if it is folded three times to produce sixteen pages, it is an Octavo; a sheet cut to produce twelve leaves or twenty four pages is a Duodecimo (Twelvemo); a sheet folded four times to produce sixteen leaves or thirty two pages is a Sixteenmo. Measurements of these leaves are only approximate. Folio = ca. 19"x12"; Quarto = ca. 12"x9"; Octavo = ca. 9"x6"; Duodecimo = ca. 7"x5"; Sixteenmo = ca. 7"x4". The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents recommends the discontinuation of the use of these measurements in the manuscript field and the substitution of either inches or centimeters.
  • Telegram: A typed or handwritten record of a message transmitted electronically or by telegraph. It may also represent the original draft in the hand of the author or clerk.
  • Transcript: A written, printed or typewritten copy of dictated or recorded material prepared by someone other than the original author. This is often done when the original is difficult to read.
  • True copy: See Copies of manuscripts and documents.
  • Twelvemo: See Sizes.
  • Typescript: A typewritten manuscript.
  • Vellum: See Parchment.
  • Verso: The left hand page of a book or the side of a leaf (as a manuscript) that is read second.
  • Vignette: A picture, as an engraving or photograph, that shades off gradually into the surrounding paper.
  • Watermark: A marking in paper resulting in differences in thickness, usually produced by pressure of a projecting design in a mold or on a processing roll. It is usually visible when the paper is held up to light. Watermark designs are often helpful in dating the paper and establishing the country of origin.
Thus we have a vocabulary, which is useful for communication between those in the manuscript field. It is essential that we have common language for describing manuscripts and for their proper description when buying or selling them through dealers' catalogues or auction houses. It is a language, which must also be understood by collectors, institutional buyers, librarians, archivists and those who wish to do library research and report on their literary pursuits to the public.
As in many other fields, a shorthand has developed for communicating manuscript information. This shorthand, or code letters (abbreviations), is particularly useful to dealers in describing their material in a brief but accurate manner and for those who must catalog archival collections or single letters and documents. Buyers and collectors must understand the system.
The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents 3 presents standardized abbreviations (codes) and recommends their use. Most of the code letters are not new, but because of the extreme variability in their usage over the years, it became necessary to adopt a more precise set of criteria for all to use. Periods between abbreviations were eliminated (e.g. ALS instead of A.L.S.). Precise dictionary definitions for each code letter were applied (e.g. A = autographed). Autograph is a noun or transitive verb, not an adjective; thus ALS = autographed letter signed, not autograph letter signed).
  • A: As a code letter it is used as the adjective autographed.
  • S: The name of a person written in his own hand when used alone. It means signed, when used with another code letter (e.g. LS = letter signed).
  • MsS: Manuscript signed (text in the hand of another person; signature in the hand of the author).
  • AMsS: Autographed manuscript signed (entirely in the hand of the author).
  • TMsS: Typewritten manuscript signed (signature in the hand of the author).
  • AMs: Autographed manuscript unsigned (in the hand of the author).
  • Since manuscript may mean handwritten or typewritten, for these criteria MsS is defined as being written by another but signed by the author. An autographed or typed manuscript is so indicated ( AMsS & TMsS ). If a manuscript is printed or partly printed, this notation may be entered before the code (e.g. printed MsS). The codes MsLS and MsDS are frequently used by dealers but do not distinguish between handwritten and typewritten pieces, unless of course the letter or document was created before the invention of the typewriter. This use of Ms is discouraged.
  • ALS: Autographed letter signed (entirely in the hand of the author).
  • TLS: Typewritten letter signed (signature in the hand of the author).
  • AL: Autographed letter unsigned (in the hand of the author).
  • LS: Letter signed (text in the hand of another person; signature in the hand of the author). With these criteria LS means a letter written in the hand of another but signed by the author, as opposed to a typewritten letter (TLS). If the letter is printed, it should be spelled out (e.g. printed LS). At times letters bear printed, rubber or steel stamped signatures, but more often they are signed by secretaries. These are referred to as "secretarial letters" and should be so indicated in a description. For over thirty years it has become the common practice of presidents, movie stars and other celebrities besieged with autograph requests, to respond with signatures, signed photos or letters signed by an Autopen or other letter-writing machines. These are mechanical devices, which reproduce the signatures or even entire letters. A copy of the authentic writing is transferred to a matrix (an inscribed plate). A tracing arm, guided by a pin passing over the inscribed matrix, is attached to any writing instrument that is desired (felt tip, ball point and ink discharging pens, pencils, crayons, etc.). The writing instrument makes a copy of the autograph on the desired medium. Since these recording devices are very sensitive, the signatures often exhibit faintly wiggly lines, a quick giveaway. The better Autopen signatures must be compared to other known Autopen examples to determine whether they are Autopen or authentic. A number of books, pamphlets and magazines have been published giving examples of Autopen signatures. 4-7 It has been observed that some official presidential documents have been signed with an Autopen machine. A legal test of this practice has not been made. Since Autopen signatures are invariably authorized by the author, it has been said that they are as valid as if signed in person. On the other hand, in the wrong hands, illegally fabricated documents could easily be produced. President Andrew Johnson's rubber-stamped signature appeared on hundreds of military commissions, never to be challenged. In describing manuscripts and letters, mechanically-produced signatures must always be identified.
  • ANS: Autographed note signed. A very brief message (entirely in the hand of the author).
  • TNS: Typewritten note signed (signature in the hand of the author). Notes are brief and usually quick forms of communication, by-passing the formality of whole letters. They may be in the form of reminders, making appointments, instructions attached to documents or used for a multitude of other purposes. At times there is no sharp distinction between a note or a brief letter. In the absence of a salutation or complimentary closing, the piece would more likely be defined as a note. Postcards fall into the category of notes vs. letters. Some have recommended the code PC for postcard or C for card. The Manuscript Society Criteria does not, as these letters tend confuse terminology already in place. The words card or postcard should be spelled out in any description of their use.
  • AES: Autographed endorsement signed (an endorsement on another person's letter or document entirely in the hand of the endorser).
  • Endorsement literally means "to put on the back." The most common examples are signatures on the back of checks. They are seen on other "responses" to a document or letter received. These may include receipts on invoices or promissory notes, sheriff's notations of executed writs or summonses, notarized certificates as well as many other types of acknowledgments or comments. Endorsed documents or letters are usually passed on to another party, often a higher authority. The most famous endorsements are those of Abraham Lincoln. On hundreds of occasions he received letters or notes, which required a response. Rather than write a whole letter, he would write a note on the original letter, forwarding it to others, usually the military. This was also a common practice of the military in issuing orders on a single document, often endorsed by a number of officers. Another form of endorsement is the docket. In the days before modern file cabinets, letters received were folded twice, creating a folded letter measuring ca. 8" x 3.5". They were filed vertically in wooden boxes or other file drawers. As a means of identifying the letter at a later date, a docket or endorsement was written at the top of the folded letter, facing the reader. It included the name of the sender, date and often a note about the contents.
  • AQS: Autographed quotation signed (entirely in the hand of the author).
  • TQS: Typewritten quotation signed (signature in the hand of the author).
  • A quotation is a recitation or copy of a previously written passage or text. Authors often copy passages from their books or poems and sign them as souvenirs for their devotees. They may be handwritten, typewritten or printed, as was frequently the case with the poet Edwin Markham. If handwritten they may be referred to as fair copies. The author may also keep a copy of his entire manuscript for his own files. These are referred to as retained or clean copies. A clean copy may also be produced for the printer for the purpose of typesetting.
  • DS: Document signed (text in the hand of another person; signature in the hand of the author).
  • ADS: Autographed document signed (entirely in the hand of the author).
  • TDS: Typewritten document signed (signature in the hand of the author).
  • MuQS: Musical quotation signed. An excerpt from a musical score (in the hand of another person; signature in the hand of the composer).
  • AMuQS: Autographed musical quotation signed. An excerpt from a musical score (entirely in the hand of the composer).
  • AMuQ: Autographed musical quotation unsigned. An excerpt from a musical score (in the hand of the composer).
  • AMuDS: Autographed musical document signed (musical score entirely in the hand of the composer and signed).
  • MuDS: Musical document signed (printed or in the hand of another person; signature in the hand of the composer).
  • Autographed musical material is a highly desirable format for collectors. It is the expression of the specialty of the composer, much as fair copies of poems, signed baseballs and signed books are expressions of the expertise of their signers. Original musical scores are generally quite scarce, but signed musical quotations as souvenirs have been fairly common during the last century. Examples might include several bars of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" by John Philip Sousa, a few bars of a piano piece by Franz Liszt or a few bars from "Sing, Sing, Sing" by Louis Prima.
  • PS: Photograph signed (in the hand of the subject).
  • IPS: Inscribed photograph signed (dedication and signature in hand of the subject).
  • To conform with all of the previous codes noted above, it has been recommended in The Manuscript Society Criteria that "PS" and "IPS" be used instead of "SP" and "IPS," similar to current European usage and more consistent with the placement of the "S" in the other codes. Occasionally the inscription is in a hand other than the author. This should be noted. Photographs are a highly desirable way of collecting and displaying autographs. They give a sense of animation and reality to the signature. Original photographs signed by the photographer are generally very scarce and highly desirable. Such would be the case with photographs made by Matthew Brady, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams and others.
  • FDC: First day cover (postal cover canceled on the first day stamp is issued). There are some collectors who collect only signed first day covers. Theirs is a marriage between philatelic and autograph collecting. Addressed or unaddressed FDC's are often signed by celebrities on the address portion. The celebrity is usually connected in some way with the image on the stamp or cachet on the cover. A good example is an "Inauguration Cover", dated on the day of inauguration and signed by the President of the United States or his vice president. A cover might include a famous artist such as Norman Rockwell, a military man such as General Douglas MacArthur or celebrities in scores of other categories.
  • n.d.: No date.
  • n.y.: No year.
  • n.p.: No place.
  • p: Page - a single side of a leaf or one of the leaves of a book. In the manuscript field it generally refers to sides of a leaf.
  • Pp: Pages.
Thus we have a set of codes or abbreviations which may be used in describing letters, documents and manuscripts in a concise and accurate manner. A standardized format has been recommended in The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents. 3 To wit:
Name (dates of birth and death). Biography. Descriptive Code, number of pages, dimension in inches, place, date. Address. Grade. Description.

The use of this format permits us to describe almost any type of autographed material. For example:

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus (1756-1792). Composer. AMuQ, 1p, 8" x 13", n.p., [ca.1782] July. Fine. Slight splattering of ink in third bar. His working draft of the opening 5 bars of the 1st movement of Wind Serenade in E flat major.


Clemens, Samuel Langhorne (pseud. Mark Twain) (1835-1910). American author. IPS, 10" x 8", Redding, CT, 1899 July 2. Very fine. It is inscribed to his son-in-law Ossip Gabrilowitch.


Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865). President of the United States (1861-65). ALS, 1p, 9" x 6", Washington, D.C., 1863 Oct. 2. Addressed to Edwin Stanton. Fine. Slight foxing of the blank right margin. Concerns military appropriations.

If more than one manuscript or document is being described, an "s" is added to "Ms", "L", "N", "E, "Q", "D" or "P" (e.g. ALsS, ANsS, Ss, AMssS) Additional codes may be created by combinations of single code letters (e.g. AN, TQS, &c). If a piece relates to an individual but contains none of his holograph, the name should be bracketed. If a manuscript or document is printed or partly printed, it should be so indicated - e.g. partly printed ADS (script portions entirely in the hand of the author); partly printed DS (written portions in the hand of a secretary or clerk but signed by the author). If the medium is other than paper, it should be noted (e.g. vellum, cardboard, stamps &c) and the writing instrument should be noted if not a pen (e.g. pencil, crayon &c). Incumbency may be indicated following the code (e..g. ALS as President). If an entire surname is not given in the closing or text, the exact form should be indicated (e.g. ALS "George"; LS "F.D.R."; DS "Nap[oleon]"). If a letter is written in the third person (name in text of letter), enter after the code (e.g. "Th: Jefferson sends his thanks to..."). If language is other than English, specify after code (e.g. ALS in French). Significant watermarks should be noted as should carbon, letterpress, fair, true, contemporary copies and retained drafts. Other details may be found in The Manuscript Society Criteria.
It is recommended that in giving dimensions of a piece, that they be given in the order of height X width. This has not been standardized in the past. For example the oft noted 3" x 5" card represents height X width, whereas and traditional 8" x 10" photograph represents width X height. It is recommended that the old imprecise designations of folio, quarto, octavo, duodecimo, and sixteenmo be abandoned and in their stead, inches or centimeters be used.
Places of origin of letters and documents are noted. State abbreviations are those used by the United States Postal Service (e.g. AL, CA, NY, OH, TX, &c). If the place is not indicated but revealed by the content of the piece, it is identified with a square bracket, e.g. [Skagway, AK]. Dates are given by year, month and day, in order of importance (e.g. 1776 July 4). When the date is not shown but determined by internal evidence, it is square-bracketed, e.g. [1872]. If a year or decade is not certain, they too should be square-bracketed, e.g. [187?], [18?]. The name of the addressee, as well as pertinent philatelic features should be noted, e.g. CDS, other postal stamps, rates.
The Manuscript Society Criteria recommend a system of grading autographs, based on condition (Extra fine, very fine, fine, very good, good, fair and poor). These categories are precisely defined and should be used by those dealers and auction houses who distribute catalogues and present their material on the Internet. Without good descriptions of letters, manuscripts and documents, it is almost impossible for a buyer to exercise good judgment in his purchases.
Defects must be enumerated after the grading and should indicate degrees of browning, brittleness, foxing and bleaching. Notations should also be made of stains, separations, holes, tears, trimming, wear, mounting, inlaying and laminating. Indications of creases, abrasions and oxidation of photographs should be noted. Ink defects present should be noted, such as smudging, splattering, fading, show-through, erosion and transfer from premature folding of a letter.
Finally, a description of the document, letter or manuscript follows, particularly as it relates to the author. Observations of historic significance should also be recorded. Facsimiles of signatures of important personages and historic documents and letters are common and must be distinguished from originals. They may be produced on photographic film, photostats, photocopies, by mechanical writing devices or with steel and rubber stamps. Older facsimiles are relatively easy to distinguish. With more refined reproductive techniques now, it can be more difficult to be certain. As a rule, it is a good idea for all in the manuscript field to own and use an eye loupe with a magnification of 10X, to examine handwriting more closely. When viewed with magnification, facsimile writing is two-dimensional. The "writing" does not show pen scratch marks or variations in darkness of the strokes, but a more uniform appearance, often with tiny flecks of paper showing through the writing. With authentic writing, one can actually see three dimensions - written strokes overlying previous strokes, such as the crossing of a "t". During World War I, King George V, wrote a letter welcoming the American army, addressed to each soldier. This letter was reproduced as a facsimile and was distributed to thousands of doughboys. To this day people "discover" these old letters, believing they are original. Other common examples of facsimiles include signed White House cards (printed) of Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, reproductions of autographs in books, dealer and auction catalogues as well as steel and rubber-stamped signatures on documents. The latter were used by several presidents, including Andrew Johnson and Woodrow Wilson. Facsimiles are usually not on the same type of paper as the original; the paper should be part of the inspection process. The collector must always exercise caution in examining autographs, and be alert to the possibility of facsimiles, forgeries and secretarial signatures.
Autograph collecting has been a hobby since the dawn of writing. The past few decades have seen an explosion in interest in collecting historically important paper as well as historically less important mementos of famous personages such as signatures, signed photographs and baseballs. As in any marketplace, rapidly escalating prices have encouraged forgers to ply their trade; the extraordinary demand on celebrities for their autographs has led to the use of mechanically written, stamped or printed signatures. As such it is essential that the collector be aware of the many pitfalls in autograph collecting. Even experienced dealers and archivists are fooled at times. One must always buy from an established and reputable dealer who warrants the authenticity all the material he sells.
To acquire authentic autograph material, one must have a knowledge of inks, paper, writing techniques and of all the other conditions enumerated above. One must learn "The Language of Autograph Collecting." Understanding the definitions, terminology and codes cited and recommended in The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents, will make it easier to avoid mistakes and to understand the complexities involved in assembling a fine collection of autographs.
1. Archives, Personal Papers and Manuscripts: A Cataloging Manual for Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries (APPM).
Compiled by Steven L. Henson, Library of Congress, Washington, 1983.
2. Archives, Personal Papers and Manuscripts: A Cataloging Manual for Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries (APPM).
Compiled by Steven L. Hensen, Second edition, Society of American Archivists, Chicago, 1989.
3. The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents.
Edited by Norman F. Boas, The Manuscript Society, Burbank, California, 1990.
4. Autographs and Manuscripts: A Collector's Manual.
Edited by Edmund Berkeley, Jr., The Manuscript Society, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1978.
5. The Universal Autograph Collector Club's Study of Machine Signed Signatures.
By Paul Carr, U.A.C.C., ca. 1984.
6. The Robot that Helped to Make a President.
By Charles Hamilton, New York, 1965.
7. The Pen and Quill.
Periodical of the Universal Autograph Collector's Club.
The Language of Autograph Collecting, in Manuscripts, Vol. XLIX, No. 3, Summer, 1997. Reprinted with permission of the Manuscript Society. 1997, Manuscript Society. This article many not be reproduced in any form without permission of the Manuscript Society, except for downloading excerpts for personal use.

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