America’s History in Autographs:<br>The Latest from Steven Raab
By Michael Stillman,
Steven S. Raab Autographs has released its “Catalogue 47,” another collection of signed history that can only make you wonder where they find this material. It contains 85 signed documents, primarily American, and virtually all from names that are familiar, including the likes of Washington and Lincoln. What is truly remarkable about a Raab catalogue is that he conducts detailed research to explain most of his items and places them in their historical context. The result is a fascinating look into the personal lives of many of our most important historical figures. It brings them to life as if they were contemporary personalities rather than semi-mythical figures from another age.
One of the striking things you see is what small matters routinely required the attention of people we now see as giants. For example, here’s a signed approval from Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton authorizing the purchase of two mooring chains to be used at a lighthouse. In it, Hamilton notes that he has secured the approval of the President (George Washington). The president had to approve the purchase of a couple of mooring chains? One wonders how many billions of dollars are spent today without ever rising above a mid-level bureaucrat. Item 26. $4,395.
Item 52 is one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “binoculars” letters. During World War I, Roosevelt served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. One of his jobs was to secure binoculars for the Navy, but in those days they didn’t go out and order a bunch from L.L. Bean. No, they asked citizens to send their binoculars to the Navy to help them out. In return, donors got a nice letter from Roosevelt, a check for $1, and a promise to return the binoculars when the war was over if possible. If they were unable to do so, the $1 would represent the purchase price; if they could be returned, it would constitute a rental. I cannot imagine how Roosevelt would have been able to connect each pair of binoculars left at the War’s end with the right donor, but Roosevelt was a very clever man. While the payment was small, those who patiently held onto their letters were, in due time, rewarded for their patriotism, for Roosevelt went on to be president and his autograph is now quite valuable. Item 52 includes one of these letters, the envelope, and a check for $1. $895.
Item 56 is an even more remarkable letter from Eleanor Roosevelt, written during the Depression (1933) when she was First Lady. Evidently, a woman from the Syracuse, New York, area wrote her requesting the First Lady please help her out with a loan. Would such a request receive serious consideration today? Mrs. Roosevelt did a bit of research through the local YWCA to assure the lady making the request was honest, and once confirming that she was, wrote to a Mr. Kelly requesting he see if he could find someone in Syracuse willing to lend her the money. The First Lady then added that she would be willing to loan her a little, but could not provide the entire amount. While the concept of political figures giving away public money sounds familiar, the idea of their giving away their own sounds downright bizarre. $895.