Lummis Collection: Can We Get Your Autograph?

Rudy Ruiz

Former City Librarian Charles F. Lummis approached the Library Board of Directors in October of 1905 and recommended that a system of collecting autographs be put in place:

There are few intelligent people who have not some interest in distinguished autographs. At a very small expense for stationery, postage, and clerical work, this library could found an autograph department, using uniform sheets to be bound up in volumes. To contemporary autographs, which this institution would readily secure by proper request, important historical autographs could, from time to time, be added by gift and purchase; and with the natural growth of this institution, there would be in time a collection genuinely interesting and of large historical and monetary value.

The motion to put in place a system for collecting autographs was moved by Director Isidore B. Dockweiler and Lummis’s request was approved.

In 1906 the Autograph Collection was instituted. Blank stationary with the letterhead “Los Angeles Public Library Autographs,” an autograph solicitation letter, and a mailing tube or flat with prepaid return postage was sent to “people who count.” Those who count included artists, authors, and statesmen such as Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, and Clara Barton. The letter that Lummis mailed asked these special individuals to “improve” the enclosed blank page, and improve they did. Lummis collected roughly 750 autographs that contained original watercolors, sketches, written music, poems and moving sentiments. The library continued to collect autographs after Lummis’s departure as City Librarian in 1910. The post-Lummis collection includes poems from Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps and correspondences from Helen Keller. The combined autograph collection totals 1700 autographs.

Today we are continuing to grow Lummis’ collection, but with an important twist. The library is inviting you to “improve the page” in order to leave your own mark on the city of L.A. Visit a participating library on June 2, 2018, to add your name, drawing, poem or memory to the library’s autograph collection. The library will provide blank stationery that is a replica of the original paper and a few samples of the original collection to help spark ideas.

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An unconventional portrait of Charles Fletcher Lummis by Richard Elwood Dodge, 1907
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Autograph solicitation letter, 1910
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“Shere Khan” by William Henry Drake, 1907
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Cartoon by Edmund Waller “Ted” Gale of the Los Angeles Times, c.1907
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Portrait by Elbridge Ayer Burbank, c.1906
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“America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates, c.1906
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Painting by Alexander Francis Harmer, c.1907
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Watercolor by Emile Sterns Perry, c.1909
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Cyanotype portrait of John Muir
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“Youth” poem by Langston Hughes, 1935
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“The Daybreakers” poem by Arna Bontemps, 1935
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Correspondence from Helen Keller to City Librarian Althea Warren, 1944