In 1853 and 1854, the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, or RLASS, had the perfect gift idea: Autographs for Freedom. A coffee table book in the days before coffee tables.
RLASS members, including Julia Wilbur, wrote famous abolitionists of the day to request a poem, essay, or article. The main "ask," however, was the person's signature at the bottom of the page. Some composed a piece for the volume, others sent something already written. A typical page spread looked like this, in this case with autographs from Senator Charles Sumner and journalist Horace Greeley--
- First and foremost, it raised money. The RLASS was a small organization with a large mission. They helped support the North Star, the newspaper that Frederick Douglass published in Rochester. Smaller amounts of money went to individual people escaping slavery who passed through Rochester on the way to Canada. They rented space and hosted prominent speakers.
- Second, according to an RLASS report, the book was "dedicated to the cause of liberty." The approximately 45 entries included an attack on the Fugitive Slave Act and similar causes. Granted, most, if not all, of the readers already were supporters but the book compiled many creative and polemic writings on the topic of the day.
- It raised the profile of the group with movers and shakers of the day. The novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was top-of-mind in both the US and England; thus, as noted in the introduction: "we desire to express our warm gratitude to each of the distinguished philanthropists who contributed to its pages. In this connection we would especially mention Mrs. H.B. Stowe, whose deep interest in our enterprize [sic], whose wise suggestions, and whose generous assistance were invaluable to us."
Building on Stowe's celebrity, the British edition gave her top billing:
According to Wilbur, RLASS member Julia Griffiths hatched the idea. Griffiths was a controversial figure around Rochester. After she and her sister Eliza met Frederick Douglass in England, they moved to Rochester, where they settled into the Douglass family household. Julia served as business manager for Douglass' North Star, alienating friend and foe alike. (Hard to say how much was tinged with resentment of a woman out of her "sphere," although she did sound bossy.)
Julia Wilbur was part of the committee to solicit contributions. September 10, 1853:
This AM wrote 10 letters inviting persons to write for the 2d vol of the “Autographs”
The women published two volumes in the U.S. before moving on to other endeavors. I viewed an original Autographs for Freedom in the collection at the University of Rochester. You can read the text online on archive.org.
I can't rival Charles Sumner and Horace Greeley, much less Harriet Beecher Stowe, but many readers enjoy signed books. Contact me if you would like me to sign a copy of A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time.