Some people fatten their autograph collections by hanging around stage doors and making pests of themselves, or stalking Capitol Hill when Congress is in session.
A shrinking violet myself, I prefer to grow my own autograph collection organically, hoarding replies from famous people to whom I've written pseudo-serious letters. That way, even if I do get on someone's nerves, I'm not around to witness it.
Washington might seem an autograph-hunter's Eden: All those celebrity pols! The trick is pinning them down. Even the letter ruse isn't certain, unless you see your target actually sign the paper: The autopen, popular with politicians since the early '60s, reproduces signature with amazing faithfulness. Experts suggest you fit one signature over another; if they're identical, they weren't signed by hand. Still, I claim an authentic Spiro Agnew, signed when he was still governor of Maryland.
If you favor political signatures, this is the year to begin a collection. Candidates are never more accessible -- and since you can't predict the winner, take anything you can get. Rallies and fund-raising dinners are good places to seek. And ye shall find.
Some autograph-hunters are shameless and relentless. The Wall Street Journal once featured a Good Humor truckdriver in Brooklyn who spent 18 years collecting 10,000 signatures of Broadway performers, garnering sometimes 25 new ones each day. That's a lot of Popsicles.
Autograph collecting goes back to Roman times -- Julius Caesar's day, although on the Ides of March nobody thought to ask for his signature. The Bard himself left only six known copies of his signature, "Shaksper," according to sources at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Sixteenth-century German, Dutch and Belgian students collected their friends' autographs in small albums known as alba amicorum . Victorian young ladies swooned all over themselves to capture Charles Dickens' hand forever in their dainty little ribbon-bound books.
Poets were also in great demand among the early autograph hounds. Today, I doubt that an Allen Ginsberg signature is valued anywhere near as much as a Clint Eastwood or a Pete Rose. Heroes change. But back in the 1800s, people actually cannibalized letters solely for the autographs; only the signatures wound up pasted in albums.
My interest sprouted from an ancient red-covered volume six inches by four, that I received on my 12th birthday. In addition to signatures of my parents and siblings, the book brims over with the rhymed pre-puberty sentiments of my yount classmates.
The little verses they wrote could serve as models for Washington celebrities signing autograph books -- for example, "Way back here/Out of sight/I write my name/Just for spite . . . Richard Nixon ," just for flair.
Or, "There are silver ships/And there are gold ships/But there is no ship /Like a chairmanship . . . Wilbur Mills ."
Or how about: "I luv ya, I luv ya/I luv ya so well/If I had a peanut/ I'd give you the shell . . . Jimmy C ."
For serious collectors, there are excellent books on what to look for and how to interpret abbreviations like ALS (autograph letter signed) and AMSS (autograph manuscript signed). There are catalogues to subscribe to through auction house. Check out the quarterly Manuscripts and the Collector , a magazine for autograph and historical collectors.
Don't count on getting rich, though -- unless you're already worth megabucks, there's no way you'll ever get your hands on an original Shaksper or a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
But to secure Grandma's handwriting for posterity or little Megan's nursery-school scribble-scrabble, I heartily recommend keeping a family autograph book. And if you want to squirrel away a cocktail napkin with Sonny Jurgenson's moniker on it or an autopenned letter blessed by Ronald Reagan, go ahead. In a hundred years, who knows what it will be worth? (Want to trade a Zbig Brzezinski for a slightly worn Spiro Agnew?)