Collectors of autographs, like fisherman, are much given to lamentation. Gaius Plininus Secundus Pliny, the Elder, perhaps set the tone when he complained, at the very outset of the first century, of the scarcity of Julius Caesar letters. But even Pliny – who bears the distinction of being the only celebrity killed at the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius – had an easier time of it than his brethren who also collected, all the way to this third Millennium. In his day, at least, a Caesar could put reed-pen to papyrus, and so create a genuine autograph letter – as compared to, say, the typewritten presidential missive of today, signed by a machine. At what point, you may wonder, did presidents stop handwriting their letters – or have others handwrite them on their behalf? Up until, it appears, April 4, 1889, when President Benjamin Harrison sent out this first typewritten letter…
On February 12, 1880, a wooden crate arrived at the White House containing a new contrivance which would, soon enough, revolutionize presidential letter writing: a Fairbanks and Company Improved Number Two Typewriter. Neither Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur or Cleveland (in, that is, his first term) used the “type-writing” machine for correspondence, but by the time Benjamin Harrison arrived at the White House, the typewriter was important enough to have its own two small rooms – shared with the telephone and telegraph – and its own operator, Miss Alice Sanger, the first female White House staffer. This letter to a book bindery owner in Philadelphia, thanking him for the gift of an olive wood box which he had made especially for the new President, is the earliest known example of a presidential typewritten letter. As such, it is both alpha and omega, for the advent of the typewritten missive would make the presidential autograph letter rarer and rare – and drive it, almost, to the point of extinction.
April 4, 1889.
Charles F. Heller, Esq.
My Dear Sir:
I take pleasure in acknowledging the receipt of your favor of the 2nd inst. and also of the box made of olive wood. I beg to express my appreciation of this finely executed specimen of your workmanship, and of the friendly spirit which prompted you to make and send it to me.
Very truly yours,
In President Harrison’s acknowledgment, by the brand-new means of a typewritten letter, of a gift hinting of the Holy Land and the eternal, there is more than a little irony. For what began in faint lines of type on paper ended, a century later, in pixels on a screen – and so distanced the President writing, from the intimacy of correspondence, as to take it, literally, to an entirely new dimension. On November 7, 1998, Bill Clinton, using a Toshiba Satellite Pro laptop computer, transmitted the first-ever presidential email. Appropriately, it was to astronaut John Glenn, in outer space. Glenn, then orbiting Earth aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery, had emailed the President to thank the Clintons for coming to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch. “This is certainly a first for me, writing to a President from space,” Glenn wrote,”and it may be a first for you in receiving an E mail direct from an orbiting spacecraft.” Clinton, tit-for-tat, then sat down at the laptop to write that both he and Hillary were “very proud of you and the entire crew, and a little jealous”, and to tease the 77 year-old Glenn about how his trip was “a perfectly fine thing for a young man like you to do!”
Of course, sending a message 345 miles up into space, instantaneously, is a far cry from sending a typewritten letter from Washington to Philadelphia, in a day. Yet the rush of technology is such that it makes the first presidential Type Letter Signed seem almost as far away as, say, the destruction of Pompeii in 79 A.D… The only constant, it would seem, is the autograph collector’s quest to get his hands on that ever-rarer thing: a good letter.
BENJAMIN HARRISON. 1833 – 1901. The 23rd President of the United States
Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, Executive Mansion,Washington, April 4, 1889. To Charles F. Heller in Philadelphia.