Oliver Barrett: Lincoln Collector

Oliver R. Barrett was a lawyer and collector who, at the time of his death in 1950, had the largest collection of Lincoln books, manuscripts, and artifacts in the country. Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, on October 14, 1873, Barrett moved with his family moved to Pittsfield, the county seat of Pike, when he was young. There Barrett began collecting autographs of famous people. He reached out to individuals of interest, including former president Rutherford B. Hayes, by sending his autograph book in the mail and asking recipients to sign their name before sending it on to the next person listed in his book.  He even distributed circulars that read, “Wanted, Letters of Famous Men,” to help build his collection. Over Barrett’s life, his autograph collection grew into one of the most substantial collections of autographic materials ever compiled by an American.

By his late teens Barrett regularly advertised in weekly newspapers for autographs and other materials, especially those with connections to Abraham Lincoln. Barrett developed his passion for acquiring Lincolniana from growing up around people who could tell stories about the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln from their own experiences. As a boy he visited Springfield with his mother where he acquired some of his first Lincoln souvenirs, marking the start of his Lincoln collection. Barrett’s collection continued to expand, eventually becoming one of the largest collections of Lincoln autographs, manuscripts, and other materials ever assembled by an individual.

Barrett studied to become a lawyer at the University of Michigan and graduated with the law class of 1896. He was admitted to the bar in Illinois that same year. Barrett enlisted in the Spanish-American War as a private in the Fifth Illinois Volunteers in 1898, a brief interruption to his practice of law in Peoria from 1896 to 1905. In 1905, Barrett moved to Chicago.

Barrett met writer Carl Sandburg in Chicago in 1924, and it was Barrett’s passion for Lincoln and his growing collection of Lincoln materials that developed an ongoing relationship between the two. The two spent years as friends and collaborators, meeting for walks and discussions in Chicago and exchanging letters in between. When Sandburg finished his epic six-volume biography of Lincoln, The Prairie Years and The War Years, he dedicated the work to his “constant companions on a long journey.” At the top of the dedication, Sandburg wrote, “To the attorney-at-law, collector of documents and source items in history, seeker of basic human lore, Oliver R. Barrett.”

Letter from Carl Sandburg to Oliver Barrett

The Oliver R. Barrett Papers, 1933-1952 (MS 1014) contains letters and files that document Barrett’s collaborative work and decades-long friendship with Carl Sandburg. The collection includes letters coordinating visits and other personal correspondence such as letters between Barrett and Sandburg’s daughter Helga about her family and her father’s work. The collection also contains correspondence regarding Sandburg’s extensive work on Lincoln.

The Oliver R. Barrett, et al. Sandburg and Angle, Mary Lincoln, Wife and Widow Collection, 1930-1932 (MS 635) contains letters and documents surrounding the publication of Carl Sandburg and Paul M. Angle’s 1932 book, Mary Lincoln, Wife and Widow. The collection highlights Barrett’s role as a collector who aided the research and writing of the book, providing access to materials from his own collection, and as a collaborator who helped coordinate the work between Sandburg and Angle.

Barrett served as President of the Board of Trustees of the Illinois State Historical Library from 1939 to 1945. During that time he helped develop the collection to become a major historical center in Springfield. In 1949 Sandburg published a book called Lincoln Collector: The Story of Oliver R. Barrett’s Great Private Collection. The book describes Barrett’s extensive collection of Lincolniana in detail, and Sandburg showed his reverence for Barrett’s work as a collector and the insight his collection provided for his works on Lincoln. Sandburg had spent much of his career as a Lincoln writer drawing from Barrett’s collection, especially as he first entered the field, and over the years Barrett continued to assist his research, writing, and publishing efforts. Barrett died in 1950 and was buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, not far from the Lincoln Tomb.

IHLC Resources

A few facts citizens of Illinois should know about the famous Abraham Lincoln historical collection of Oliver R. Barrett. Chicago, IL: Lincoln Historical Fund Campaign, 1950. Call number: 973.7 L63A3L638F

Dilliard, Irving. Oliver Rogers [sic] Barrett, 1873-1950. Springfield, IL: Illinois State Historical Society, 1950. Call number: 973.7 L63A3D584O

Sandburg, Carl. Lincoln Collector: The Story of Oliver R. Barrett’s Great Private Collection. New York, NY: Harcout, Brace and Company, 1949. Call number: 973.7 L63A3SA5L1950

Other Resources

“Barrett, Oliver Rogers.” Marquis Who Was Who in America 1607-1984, 2009. http://proxy2.library.illinois.edu/login?url=https://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/marqwas/barrett_oliver_rogers/0?institutionId=386

“Oliver R. Barrett.” The New York Times (1923-Current File), Mar 06, 1950. https://search.proquest.com/docview/111481299?accountid=14553.

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