Sign O' the Times: Is the Handwritten Signature Dead?

A new exhibit at the National Archives Museum in D.C. reminds us of an era that may have passed us by WITH a trace.
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John Hancock Signature Photo

John Hancock's signature, circa 1800. (Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Could the signature be obsolete? Could our “John Hancocks”—a name that has been synonymous with the signature itself since the dawn of the United States, be going the way of ol’ John himself, along with dial phones and typewriters?

My informal poll of friends on Facebook and in person revealed that almost everyone has practiced his or her signature at some point in their lives. It has the mysterious distinction, those few strokes of a pen, of standing in for the whole of who we are, what we represent, what we stand for. There’s even a “bit” in the movie Shakespeare in Love, where actor Joseph Fiennes practices those infamous six signatures, all that we have in writing from the prolific Bard of Avon.

William Shakespeare Signature Photo

William Shakespeare's signature from the book 'The Kingsway Shakespeare' (1927). (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

So how could it be that these deeply personal spikes and squiggles teeter on the precipice of history? And yet... Jennifer Johnson, the curator of the new exhibition at the National Archives Museum, “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” told me that a visiting school group couldn’t read the 18th century handwriting! Even more startling, many schools no longer teach cursive writing or penmanship.

But when I studied paleography at the Folger Institute—in this case the transcription of English Renaissance script—we thought nothing of the fact that you can’t simply read 16th-century handwriting without training (the National Archive has a tutorial, too.) So perhaps it’s just due to the inexorable march of modernization. But if the signature is slowly scrawling its way toward extinction, it makes this exhibit now on view all the more precious, and rare.

Can I have your autograph?

Jackie Kennedy Photo

Jackie Kennedy in 1961. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Turns out, Jackie Kennedy was a bit of an autograph hound. And why not? As First Lady she had access to some of the most famous people strolling through the White House doors. So place cards, programs, and menus all became vehicles for her autograph collection of visiting dignitaries and other luminaries, like the Shah of Iran on a copy of his speech. 

But Johnson expands the exhibit beyond handwriting to include other earmarks of what constitutes a signature, so one of Jackie’s famous pillbox hats, worn on JFK’s campaign trail has pride of place in the “Signature Style” section.

In fact, politicians fall prey to the spell of celebrity as much as the rest of us, so a signed shirt from the famed Los Angeles Lakers basketball team from Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was a prized possession of President Reagan.

Ink & Blood

Adolf Hitler Eva Braun Photo

Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun in the 1930s. (Photo: Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Not all signatures signify a happy occasion, although a wedding is normally considered one. But did Eva Braun know when she signed the marriage certificate alongside Adolf Hitler that it was also a death warrant of sorts? They committed suicide together the next day. Perhaps Hitler didn’t want to face whatever awaited him in the afterlife alone.

Another eerie story involves President Thomas Jefferson, who signed an Act of Congress way back in January of 1808 fully banning the international slave trade. And yet, even though he was staunchly publicly opposed to slavery, he not only owned slaves, he had a long-term affair with one, Sally Hemings who bore him children and may even have been a half-sister to his deceased wife. The Slave Trade Act also had the unfortunate consequence of driving the slave trade underground for many years. Another document in the exhibit shows a slave ship with the occupants acknowledging they are “slaves for life.” The film 12 Years a Slave seems to have opened a passage whereby more and more facets of this dark period in history are coming to light.

Having a Hand in It

Michael Jackson’s signature glove was an integral part of his look, but he also put his hand to a shoe invention sent to the Patent and Trademark Office, that enabled one of his signature dance moves.

Katharine Hepburn Photo

Katharine Hepburn on the set of the Broadway production of 'The Philadelphia Story.' (Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Katharine Hepburn was not only a great actress, she was a good friend. She wrote to the U.S. Board of Parole on behalf of screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr., who had been imprisoned during the McCarthy era for refusing to answer House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) questions, believing it was unconstitutional. It was a risky move on her part, but she signed the typewritten letter with her distinctive bold strokes, which are an orthographic reflection of her personality.

The Art of the Signature

In addition to the power of the pen when used to affix a signature to an important document, the pens themselves hold a special significance. Amidst the hundreds of signatures in the exhibit, there are a collection of pens used during the administrations of JFK and LBJ. Did you know, for example, that several pens are used for one presidential signature when signing pivotal legislation?

President Bill Clinton had a hand in changing some of that though, when in 2000, he sanctioned the use of electronic signatures. “It was only 14 years ago, but it seems ancient now,” curator Johnson notes of the video that recorded the event.

Clinton Electronic Signature Photo

Clinton uses an electronic signature card to sign into law S.761 the 'Electronic Signatures and Global and National Commerce Act,' June 2000. (Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Another haunting and perhaps prescient aspect of the exhibit: A 19th-century document “signed” by Native American families of the Hopi tribe, petitioning the government for their land. They couldn’t write their names, instead there are mini portraits, what Johnson terms “pictograms,” representing each family, faintly reminiscent of emoji used today.  

With the increase of e-communication, and the decrease in handwriting ability, the art of the signature may have already seen its zenith. Our future documents may be “signed” with our personal avatar. Or marked with an X.

Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” at the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. brings together unique signatures and rarely seen documents on exhibit through January 5, 2015.