I am having addiction problems. It used to be just computer Scrabble — I actually have that one fairly well under control. Go to meetings only once a week, now. Shrink says I’ll never fully shake the urge to double click that icon, no matter how deep on my desktop I bury it. I just take it a day at a time.

But my weakness for “historic documents” seems to overwhelm my normally cheap and prudent nature. I just acquired four new Einstein pieces — one, handwritten in German to a colleague who apparently had written in despair that her husband was cheating on her. The smartest man in the world gives his thoughts/advice on infidelity. Another is his 1938 lease on the summer cottage at which, the following year, he wrote a famous letter to FDR urging him to build an A-bomb. The two best are typewritten in English about why people should not cooperate with the House UnAmerican Committee — Senator Joe McCarthy.

But what the heck are these things worth? How do you compare the value of an Einstein letter with the value of some mint condition 1954 Brooklyn Dodgers baseball card? Or a Roman coin? Or a second-rate impressionist painting?

Part of the fun is the person signing, but for me the name itself is not a sufficient lure to trigger the addiction. It’s the content.

Here is a cheap letter dated July 18, 1898, on the stationery of Colliers Weekly. The writer, aged 28, in his first year as ad manager, is trying to persuade the Urbana Wine Company to advertise. It’s signed: “Conde Nast.” Isn’t that nice?

And here is a cheap letter dated September 5, 1917, from a guy in the United States Food Administration — Herbert Hoover, who would be President just a few years later (how’d he pull that off?) to the Rolin Film Company in Los Angeles.

“Confronted with the stern necessity of stopping every possible waste of food and foodstuffs during the continuance of the war, we are compelled to earnestly request that the use of real food in scenes on the stage in theatres and the use of real food in the course of the production of motion pictures be entirely eliminated.”

Substitutes for real food can undoubtedly be found, he writes, or if not, the scene could just be omitted.

Think of all the food that will be saved this way!

I don’t know whether it’s more a comment on our desperate circumstances during World War I, the occasional silliness of bureaucrats, or the small-mindedness of Herbert Hoover. But I love it. And it cost a heck of a lot less than Einstein on infidelity.

(Please don’t ruin my fun and tell me this was just some guy who happened to have the same name as the future dam.)


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