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Brief History of Collecting in the US

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Collecting is a centuries-old practice most often associated with European royalty until the revolutionary era of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and the emergence of capitalism, particularly in the United States. During the Early Republic period, prominent individuals such as Thomas Jefferson and Charles Wilson Peale collected a variety of natural, technological, and art objects as interest in collecting slowly increased in the U.S.1 Some sought to complete autograph sets containing the signatures of each signer of the Declaration of Independence, while others pursued art, coins, and books. Many collectors retained their collections privately, while others wanted to connect with like-minded individuals and founded clubs in the mid-nineteenth century.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Those interested in learning more about art and who lacked the money to purchase original pieces on their own joined the American Art Union (AAU), one of the earliest collecting clubs in the U.S. From 1839-1853, the AAU’s dues supported American artists and each year gave members an engraved print created from paintings by artists including Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and George Caleb Bingham. Additionally, AAU members had an opportunity to obtain original art through an annual lottery system. In 1852, the New York Supreme Court, however, declared the art lottery to be illegal and forced the AAU to dissolve and auction off its remaining holdings. At its peak, the AAU’s rolls grew to include nearly 19,000 members across the U.S.2

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Others interested in coins might have joined the American Numismatic Society (ANS), established in 1858 to pursue and study ancient coins. The ANS positioned itself as a national organization that brought together local numismatic associations established in cities across the U.S. and encouraged the formation of new groups. Wealthy New York bibliophiles established the Grolier Club in 1884 to discuss their book collections and to dabble occasionally in poster collecting.3

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Many others collected privately without belonging to clubs. This was particularly true for women and children who collected a variety of free or found objects from butterflies to buttons, to trade and prayer cards. In the 1870s and 1880s, colorfully printed and mass-produced chromolithographic trade cards appeared in consumer product packaging to encourage brand loyalty among consumers. The advent of advertising trade cards also signaled a deliberate move on the part of consumer capitalists to produce items for the purpose of collecting and preservation that encouraged spending to broaden a collection. At the same time, churches and religious societies saw the popularity of advertising cards and printed their own versions that included biblical figures and passages or prayers. Some practicing Christians enjoyed collecting prayer cards because it offered a material connection to their faith and also functioned to identify themselves as part of a larger religious community. Some of these private or home-based collections made by men, women, and children landed in scrapbooks, while others were merely thrown away.4


  1. 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0
  2. Tom Stammers, “The Bric-a-Brac of the Old Regime: Collecting and Cultural History in Post-Revolutionary France,” French History 22 (September 2008): 295–315.; Paul A Gilje, ed., Wages of Independence: Capitalism in the Early American Republic, 1st ed (Madison: Madison House, 1997); Susan M Pearce, On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition (London: Routledge, 1995); Douglas and Elizabeth Rigby, Lock, Stock, and Barrel: The Story of Collecting (Philadelphia: Lippencott, 1949). 

  3. 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Guide to the American Art-Union Print Collection 1840-1851 (New York,NY: New-York Historical Society, 2002), http://dlib.nyu.edu/eadapp/transform?source=nyhs/artunion.xml&style=nyhs/nyhs.xsl&part=body. Rigby, Lock, Stock, and Barrel: The Story of Collecting, 277-78. 

  4. 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 William R. Weeks, History of the American Numismatic and Archeological Society (New York: American Numismatic and Archeological Society, 1892). Neil Harris, “American Poster Collecting,” 13-15. 

  5. 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Ellen Gruber Garvey, “Dreaming in Commerce: Advertising Trade Card Scrapbooks,” in Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, ed. Leah Dilworth (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 66-85; Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott, and Patricia Buckler, eds., The Scrapbook in American Life (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006).; and Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). 

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Source: http://stampingamericanmemory.org/2014version/building-philatelic-communities/brief-history-of-collecting-in-the-us/