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Letters of Luminaries: Notable Correspondence in the Collections of the Ward M. Canaday Center

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“Letters and documents are the most direct link we have to the heroes and heroines, villains, and ordinary people of the past. They show these men and women as human beings, dealing with matters on a scale that all of us can relate. We begin to appreciate that their lives may not be all that different from our own—that people of the past confronted the same feelings and fears that we all do, and that they persevered to achieve the goals—both great and small—of their lives.”

Kenneth W. Rendell, History Comes to Life: Collecting Historical Letters and Documents The simple act of signing your name to a piece of paper can change one’s life. A signature verifies identity, assures authenticity, and attests to agreement. A signature marks all of life’s significant events—a doctor’s signature on a birth certificate, a principal’s signature on a diploma, a couple’s signature on a wedding license, a coroner’s signature on a death certificate. Signatures also mark the great events of human history. It was John Hancock who, through his large, unmistakable signature, led the patriots who founded our country in their first revolutionary act. Today, signing your “John Hancock” means signing your name to a paper freely, proudly, and meaningfully.

Because signatures carry such meaning, it is not surprising that signatures of famous people are collectable. If authenticated, they are a singular, proven connection to a significant individual’s life. Having a person’s signature is a way of preserving a small bit of the signer. And if that signature is affixed to a letter that describes an event of historical significance, the signature is all the more important. As scholar Rendell noted, there is an impalpable quality in a great man’s (or woman’s) handwriting that draws one to it.

Today, “signatures” and “letters” are more likely to be electronic than real. While there is no doubt that the electronic delivery of information has changed the world, it has done so at the expense of the contemplative, eloquent letter. We no longer carefully commit our thoughts to paper, but rather dash off our ideas quickly, immediately, and often without sufficient consideration of the content. Because communication happens instantaneously, we keep it short and to the point—sometimes in less than 140 characters. We do not use complete sentences or even complete words—OMG, LOL, BFF—these have become universally understood in the age of digital communication in the same way “yours truly,” “dear,” “sincerely,” “to whom it may concern” and “with regards” were understood in the correspondence of the past.

Whether you believe emails and tweets are good or bad, we do recognize that a written letter signed by someone from the past is a precious item—perhaps made even more precious by its outdated form. What are displayed in this exhibit are the thoughts and authentic signatures of political leaders, foreign dignitaries, intellectuals, authors, entertainers, sports figures, business leaders, and important Toledoans. Some of the correspondence is routine, with the impact coming from the signature alone. Other letters are important for both the content and the signature of the author.

In addition to letters from famous individuals, there is a special part of this exhibition that celebrates the lives of the uncelebrated of our past. From the letters of these individuals, we glimpse extraordinary moments from the lives of ordinary people. It is in these few items that perhaps the real value of letter writing can be appreciated. Pouring out one’s love for another, recalling tragedies, describing the acts of birth and death—these are words that speak to the commonality of the human experience. We may not know the last names of Belle or Matilda, or how George was known to either, but when Belle writes to Matilda in May 1862, “George has enlisted and gone to war he went this morning at six o’clock we all cried and bid him good by and he almost cried to,” and we see the water smudged stains of the ink on the page, we know the tragedy of war that goes beyond the experience of Belle, Matilda, and George. Belle’s comments that her mother gave George “some nice sheets of paper and envelops and gave him a towel and some cloth to bandage up his hand or finger if it got hurt” could bring tears to even the most hardened soul. And because Belle took the time to express her sadness in writing, today we know of the circumstances of George’s departure, even if we do not know whether he ever returned to Belle after his service in the bloody Civil War.

For nearly 35 years, the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections has collected materials that document important historical events, and made these materials available to scholars locally, nationally, and globally. While our focus is on collections that support in-depth research, we are also proud of the singular items that document precise events. One of the most unique items displayed in this exhibit is a page from a guest book from the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow from December 1963 which includes the signatures of all of the Soviet Union’s leaders who came to pay their respects on the occasion of the death of President John F. Kennedy. It is an example of how a single piece of paper can come with so much significance, and document so much history. And it is but one example. Other extraordinary items include a copy of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense published in 1776 that includes the signature of the person who once held it in his possession—Benjamin Franklin. And there is a small piece of paper that is an IOU from S. H. and David McCord for the slaves Davy and Queen, who they purchased in 1847.

In addition to the letters and signatures in the “Letters of Luminaries” exhibit, the Canaday Center has also put together an accompanying exhibit in our art gallery area titled Celebrity Sightings.” This exhibit includes signed photographs of celebrities who have appeared in Toledo, many of them as part of the “Town Hall” series coordinated by Flora Ward Hineline that brought leading stars and intellectuals to the city from 1932 to 1956. Also displayed are copies of pages from scrapbooks created and maintained by the special events staff of the former Centennial (now Savage) Hall on the campus of The University of Toledo. These scrapbooks contain photographs, signatures, and often the warm sentiments of many celebrities who performed in that hall from 1976 until the late 1990s. While mostly for fun, these items also provide documentation that Toledoans have enjoyed a rich cultural life.

—Barbara Floyd
Director, Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections
The University of Toledo, September 2013

Read the exhibition catalog online

Pictures from the exhibition area

Start the Exhibition Tour

Letters of Luminaries Exhibition at the Ward M. Canaday Center

Virtual exhibition credits

Arjun Sabharwal

Kisora Christopher Thomas

Patrick Cook

Tamara Jones

Balaji Venkatachalapathi


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