As we enter the season of calculating income tax, one of the prized deductions remains donations to charitable organizations. Typically these non-for-profit organizations host auctions as a source for raising revenue. It is common to see items with celebrity autographs as the main attractions.
The use of celebrity status to raise money for worthy causes has a long history. During the Civil War era, the United States Sanitary Commission held frequent events called by various names — Sanitary Fairs, Soldiers’ Fairs, etc. — to raise money for blankets, medical, and sundry supplies for the soldiers. Led by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who had designed New York City’s Central Park, the United States Sanitary Commission established regional networks across the northern states to raise money for the war effort.
The town of Springfield, Massachusetts, held a Soldiers’ Fair in December 1864 as part of the fund-raising efforts. As was common, a fair newspaper, The Springfield Musket, was issued throughout the fair to list daily events. One of the noteworthy items for auction was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Springfield Arsenal.” Of greater interest was a letter sent by First Lady Mary Lincoln (which does not appear in Justin and Linda Turner’s compilation of her writings). The text appeared in a January 1, 1865 Washington Sunday Chronicle newspaper article reprinting an article that first appeared in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican on December 30, 1864. That text is provided in full:
“Mrs. as well as Mr. Lincoln wrote a letter for the Soldiers’ Fair in this city but Mrs. Lincoln’s has only just arrived. It is addressed to Miss Isabel Clary, and will be raffled for, so that it is not too late, after all, to add to the receipts of the fair. Ten dollars have been offered for it already, but refused. Below is the letter, and we will add, for the benefit of those who may not see the original, that it is written on fine initial note paper, unruled, and the writing consequently sloping gently to the right:
EXECUTIVE MANSION, December 24.
Your letter of the 12th instant has been received, and as it always affords me much pleasure to forward so laudable an object as the one mentioned in your note, I hasten to comply with your flattering request. I most sincerely hope that your highest anticipations may be realized, giving you all that may be necessary to carry out plans which present not only a noble purpose, in the cause of our beloved and struggling country, but also a generous, humane, and great good, in the comfort of the brave and noble hearts battling for our glorious Union. With heartfelt hope, I pray God speed you, and crown your efforts with success.
Very truly yours, Mary Lincoln”
Her husband’s response on Dec. 19th was more pro-forma, indicating that matters of state required him to remain in Washington. However, Lincoln attended the Philadelphia Sanitary Fair in June 1864. Among the celebrity items offered in Philadelphia were printed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln, William H. Seward, and John G. Nicolay. Shrewd visitors would have seen the bargain of purchasing one at the sale price of ten dollars apiece. Unfortunately, most people declined to purchase a copy, and many remained unsold. Today, one of these Leland-Boker autographed copies of the Emancipation Proclamation will fetch well more than one million dollars at auction.