The rise and fall of handwritten signatures

A recent article in the NY Times about ‘sloppy signatures’ that could disqualify mail-in votes cast during the November mid-term US elections, made me wonder if signatures written with a pen on paper are just about dead.

Whenever I have to sign my name on an electronic pad, either with my finger or a stylus, I feel embarrassed with the strange representation of my ‘real’ signature that I produce. I’ve had to do these for deliveries and at cashier checkouts. For fun I've often wondered if I were to write ‘This is Not Me’ would anyone even notice?


In Florida and other jurisdictions, squiggly doodle signatures captured on electronic signing pads wind up on your driver’s license. And if the doodle doesn’t look like the pen and ink signature on your paper ballot, your mail-in vote might be disqualified.


Use an emoji instead?


Some say technology and culture are devaluing signatures. Tamara Thornton, a University of Buffalo professor who has studied the history of handwriting, says that the time of signatures is quickly fading. “They came into popularity as a means of expressing a person’s individuality,” she told the NY Times, “which made them good for identification. Now people will just use an emoji.”


An emoji? Have we come to the point where we will represent our legal identity with this 😉 or even with this 🤪?


Maybe it’s because we have stopped teaching penmanship as a subject and young people don’t write on paper very much. My daughter tells me that the racket from the typing of 300 laptops in her first year university lecture hall can make it hard to hear the professor. I suppose that would be ironic if he was lecturing on the history of cursive writing.

Have we come to the point where we will represent our legal identity with this 😉 or even with this 🤪?

In April of this year, AMEX, MasterCard, Visa and Discover networks stopped requiring signatures to complete credit card transactions. Some shoppers were signing receipts with a figure of a snowman or a dog wagging its tail. And no cashier ever rejected them.


A Walmart spokesman even told reporters that the company consider signatures ‘worthless.’ Linda Linda Kirkpatrick, Mastercard’s head of business development, went even further adding: “The signature has really outrun its useful life.”


It started with the Romans


Like so much of the ‘modern’ world, hand-written signatures trace their roots to the cursive writing that originated in ancient Rome.

While it is true that Chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world, originating around 2000 BC, signatures in China were traditionally done with a ‘chop’, an ink pad and some messy red paste. You carried these with you to ‘mark’ official documents. (See side picture)


There are also examples of Sumerian scribes as far back as 3100 BC using words and symbols to denote their identity. But it was the Romans in Southern Italy who laid the foundations for handwriting and the alphabet that we continue to use. It would also form the foundation of legally binding signatures in the future.


Latin script evolved in the 7th Century BC, with roots in the Semitic alphabet. Latin script started with uppercase 'serifed' letters that were known as Roman square capitals. The style and forms of these letters seem surprisingly modern. 




Shown below are the Roman capitals that were used for an inscription at the base of Trajan’s Column in Rome which was completed in AD 113.


Alphabet from the Trajan Column, Rome. (Victoria and Albert Museum)

While this alphabet was carved into granite and marble, it was also used in written script for correspondence and other documents. By about the 500 AD, early versions of lowercase letters appeared and began to ‘flow’ like modern cursive writing.


After the fall of the Roman Empire, penmanship became a specialized ‘trade’ especially in monastic settings that were producing Christian texts. However styles varied greatly across Europe until the late 8th century, when under the patronage of Charlemagne, a uniform script was developed by Alcuin of York.


Alcuin was an English scholar, clergyman, poet and teacher. At Charlemagne’s request he joined other scholars at court and was one of the principal architects of Carolingian minuscule - a script which became the calligraphic standard in Europe in the 9th century.

Over the next few centuries the script evolved. Eventually it became the basis of an Italian ‘humanist’ script developed in the 15th Century with a cursive form of the main letters called ‘italic.’ It led to an italic typeface that was used by designer-printers in Venice in the early 16th century. The forms they created endure to this day.


What does this have to do with signatures?


Early handwriting was guided by these scripts and alphabets. Elegant forms developed in earnest in the 16th and 17th century and penmanship schools began to appear. While specialists took the craft to extraordinary heights, proficient penmanship was a requirement of every educated person.

In 1677 the Parliament of England enacted the Statute of Frauds, that required that all legal documents including property transactions, wills, leases, etc. be written and signed to avoid fraud on the court. It was done in an effort to replace X’s and wax seals still commonly used at the time.


Before this law, signatures were used mainly by Nobles and Kings. One of the first recorded signatures dates to 1098 when the Spanish military leader El Cid signed a document regarding his donation to the Cathedral of Valencia.


Here is a reproduction of his signature.



John Hancock sets the standard


By the time the American Declaration of Independence was drawn up in 1776, handwritten signatures were the gold standard for legally binding contracts.


Signatures were intended to be unique for every person. John Hancock, a wealthy merchant and president of the Second Continental Congress, is remembered to this day for his large stylish signature on one of the most important document in US history. He was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence and all that white space might have inspired him to spread his wings a little.



Enter the age of electronics


Alas - even the penmanship of John Hancock and El Cid were no match for the electronic revolution that began with morse code messages sent over telegraph lines.


In 1837 Samuel B. Morse tinkered with the first versions of a system that controlled an electromagnet at the other end of a wire and produced a series of short and long clicks in the process. Each series represented a letter of the alphabet as shown below:


Morse code. The beginning of the end of hand-written signatures,

It was the start of electronic communication and it wasn’t long before widespread adoption of the telegraph occurred. By 1869 electronic signatures sent this way were accepted as legally binding in the United States.


By the 1990’s true electronic commerce was on the horizon and early in this century a slew of laws in the US, Canada, Europe and at the United Nations were enacted to cement the legal and technical frameworks for electronic signatures.

Time to shed a ink tear?


The Guardian newspaper in the UK published a survey in August showing that half of UK adults rarely sign their signature. Twenty percent don’t have a consistent signature and many under the age of 24 yeas can’t remember ever signing a paper document.


About half way through researching this post, my wife and I had to go to the lawyer to sign papers for a real estate transaction. As I was signing numerous documents, I was thinking this still seems like the way things are done. Watching the lawyer add his ornate signature with a great flourish, I thought maybe ink on paper still has a place - if only in a lawyer’s office or when you’re getting married and signing up for the great adventure.


When even that gets replaced by putting your thumb on a digital pad or looking into a retina scanner, we can truly shed an inky tear for the hand-written signature.

And maybe with any luck it will land with a big signature-like splotch on a piece of old parchment paper.