The collecting of manuscripts, and their study, has ample application to nearly every other antique collecting discipline. The furniture specialist, for example, would be interested and just might find helpful information in an old cabinet maker's laboriously scrawled account book. Silver collectors seek invoices for silver written by Paul Revere, and occasionally one becomes available. Any knowledgeable person searching out information on the past might consult the primary source material to be found in handwritten form in both institutional and private collections.
This collecting presents an opportunity for learning that is far less limited than in many other areas. This reward of collecting cannot be overstated. Numerous collectors of manuscripts have - on occasion to their surprise - become recognized experts in their areas of specialization. While doing that, they also enjoyed the process of searching and learning.
Records of the distant past were mostly handwritten, as was all communication, other than face-to-face, prior to the telegraph. People with some education were mostly careful writers and old handwriting, at least American, is not nearly so hard to read as some think. Much 18th century writing is very attractive, made more so by the rich dark brown ink on the high quality cream-colored paper, in letters usually filled with a phraseology characterized by politeness and respect. (Above left: A military appointment signed by Abraham Lincoln.)
"Manuscripts" can mean an entire writing by an author, famous or not, but also letters, documents of varying types, business records, government or military records, and other forms. Within manuscript collecting, the often interchangeable term "autographs" more properly refers to the writing of famous people. Where the study of the past is concerned, the term would refer to anything in the hand of great statesmen, creative people, and leaders of any description. Some famous people are readily available in autographs, others very rare, but as a general rule something can normally be found in the hand of one's favorite, given time. Beyond this, the writings of ordinary people of the past are not unappreciated when they are letters shedding light on historical topics - for example, soldiers' letters from the Civil War, or pioneers writing to family back home. Such papers have the potential to add important information to the knowledge of local or regional history.
Values have escalated, rewarding many established collectors. We do not advise investment, but the basic ingredients of limited supply and hoped-for increasing demand remain present. The certain rewards, however, are those of gathering, preserving and learning about the past. This is true of most antique collecting, and it is very true of manuscripts.