For James A. Bowman, a longtime educator at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in New Castle, Pennsylvania, autograph collecting seemed the logical next step. A history buff with an impressive, award-winning stamp collection, Bowman incorporated the signatures of some of the world’s greatest names as a way of exciting the imaginations of his seventh grade classroom and, in his own particular way, bringing history to life: ‘I have found that there is a visual means of forming this necessary educational contact, which inspires the best in the lives of pupils; namely, the exhibiting of the autographs of the great people in all fields of endeavor.’

The catalyst for Bowman was a stamp auction in 1938, and the chance to obtain a coil strip of three of the 2c Thomas Edison Commemorative, signed across the face by the famed Menlo Park inventor. He lost the bid, but in his failure Bowman discovered a novel way of enhancing his philatelic pursuits—mailing stamps to notable figures for them to sign. His first successful signed stamp was Alfonso XIII of Spain, and his second, after several attempts, was King Edward VIII.

Although the advent of World War II forced Bowman to secure a license for sending stamps abroad, even this could not slow the steady growth of his collection. And much to Bowman’s eruditionary delight, as his collection grew, so did the fascination of his students: ‘Many of my pupils have been inspired by the signatures of the great people of our times to do better. Some of the pupils have themselves taken up the hobby.’ Filled with an array of kings, presidents, inventors, scientists, artists, and athletes, the James A. Bowman Collection is among the most diverse we have encountered in recent years.