American History in Rare Manuscripts
Justly called “primary sources” rare manuscripts are a wellspring of information to learn about American history
To illuminate the untold story of American history, we study rare manuscripts and letters; the handwritten history of America. When we read letters and diaries from the 18th century and 19th century we encounter people like ourselves.
Through rare manuscripts, when we study the business records of a small business or a large factory, we begin to see how communities in 18th century and 19th century America were interconnected.
A “manuscript” in the strict sense means something hand written: an anti-slavery speech, once held in the hands of an abolitionist and orator, a ledger from a steam-powered saw mill, a stack of letters sent back home from a Civil War ancestor. Another example of rare manuscripts may be a collection of antique diaries from pioneer days in Texas accompanied by crude handwritten survey maps for a new railroad line.
Other kinds of rare manuscripts include legal depositions, a play’s typescript, scrapbooks, a teacher’s notebook, a musical score, a handwritten collection of poems with original illustrations, a farmer’s harvest wage book.
Rare manuscripts and letters are tangible records of daily life. Some of these artifacts we immediately “get” or understand. For example, we treasure the personal thoughts and observations found in family letters and diaries.
Some rare manuscripts, however, only reveal their significance after careful study. The seemingly mundane receipts, account books, and business letters of a defunct factory might reveal the existence of a long-disappeared workers’ village or document an important new technology.
If you are interested in collecting rare manuscripts, consider visiting an exhibition of rare manuscripts at a historical society or university library. To belong to a group of like-minded collectors, consider joining The Manuscript Society.
From their website:
“The oldest society of autograph and manuscript collectors in the United States today, The Manuscript Society has become an international organization with members in Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. …[I]ts members are serious manuscript collectors–not just autograph seekers.”
For new collectors the opportunities for finding significant and meaningful autograph letters, correspondence or historical material are still vibrant across the 18th century, 19th century and, especially, the 20th century.
The history America is found in rare books, but it is also found through the original handwritten letters and historical and rare manuscripts from those who made that history.