Make Your Mark
A CultureMap®
by Christine Sismondo
Published on 11/3/14

An autograph feels like an intimate connection to a celebrity, and those who took care to make their mark in a unique way seem to have understood their signature’s importance to future generations. But as writing longhand seems to decline with each passing era, some worry that future communiqués will lack such personal feeling. This map shows that ours is hardly the first generation to struggle with signatures in an age of mechanical reproduction.

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John Hancock  (1737–1793 | American statesman)
to  Jacob J. Lew  (b. 1955 | American Treasury Secretary)

John Hancock’s oversize, highly stylized signature is by far the largest and most prominent on the U.S. Declaration of Independence and may be that document’s most iconic feature. While it has been the subject of curiosity and the inspiration for a few myths about its significance, the calligraphic signature with its famous paraph—i.e., the penned flourish underneath the name—has a boldness that evokes the courageous story of the American Revolution and the struggle for independence. It’s also one of the most recognizable signatures of all time, making Hancock’s name a synonym for the word autograph, and in the eyes of many it’s a candidate for history’s best.

If Hancock’s signature adds resonance and value to this enduring document, might a more whimsical signature devalue another piece of paper? Some worried that Treasury Secretary Jacob Joseph Lew’s loopy, letter-abjuring endorsement would demean U.S. banknotes. Throughout his tenure, Lew’s John Hancock will be printed on all American paper currency—a problem, according to critics, because his original string of abstract curlicues, strikingly similar to the Hostess CupCake squiggle, could be on a short list for all-time worst official signature. He has since revised it.

John Hancock  (1737–1793 | American statesman)
to  John F. Kennedy  (1917–1963 | American president)

John Hancock’s signature adds flair to the Declaration of Independence, but it’s also an indication of Hancock’s social status and education level. In the 18th century, handwriting was linked with character and position, and prominent citizens worked at developing elegant penmanship. Hancock was a young adult when he solidified his signature, elongating the letters J and K at the bookend positions of his name. Such flourishes corresponded with the graceful “Florentine” handwriting style then replacing the cramped Gothic script that had been standard in earlier colonial days.

Unlike Hancock, whose strong signature remained essentially consistent throughout his life, John F. Kennedy confounded autograph seekers and authentication experts alike with a different version of his (admittedly weak) signature nearly every time it was written. To standardize his sign-off, President Kennedy adopted the autopen, a robotic writing instrument that added his valediction to official correspondence. Autograph hounds daunted by the challenge of sorting genuine JFK signatures from fakes (not to mention fakes of the robot-generated one) can use what amounts to a JFK Rosetta Stone: autograph collector Charles Hamilton’s book, The Robot That Helped to Make a President, which is devoted to Kennedy’s penmanship.

John Hancock  (1737–1793 | American statesman)
to  Autograph Hounds

One of the earliest known autograph collectors was Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.), who put together a first-rate assortment back in ancient Rome. But autograph collecting didn’t really hit its stride until the 19th century, when directly hounding political or literary figures for their signature became a popular pastime. The collecting hobby known as philography exploded in the Victorian age, which saw the development of divided autograph albums that reflected the era’s obsession with classification. Collecting signed letters and notes became a thriving business with the 1877 establishment of a dedicated periodical, The Collector, published by New Yorker Walter Romeyn Benjamin, one of the first retail autograph dealers. Professional autograph seekers, a new set of profiteers, soon followed.

Many in the throngs who have since searched for a Jack Dempsey or a Babe Ruth are simply adding to their personal holdings, but others seek autographs mainly for resale, because famous specimens command increasingly higher prices. Although signatures by John Lennon ($525,000), Abraham Lincoln ($748,000) and William Shakespeare (currently valued up to $5 million) have prompted some of the topmost prices, John Hancock’s John Hancock, also keenly sought, has fetched only up to $75,000.

Jacob J. Lew  (b. 1955 | American Treasury Secretary)
to  John F. Kennedy  (1917–1963 | American president)

Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Jacob J. Lew had to change his swirly signature so he wouldn’t make federal banknotes look silly. Lew’s predecessor, Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner, also had to change his signature—a curvilinear but less loopy line than Lew’s—to something that could be recognized as his actual name. Many other political figures have grappled with their penmanship, from Revolutionary War–era patricians who affected elegant, flashy signatures to demonstrate they were men of letters, to John F. Kennedy, whose unremarkable scrawl changed nearly every time he wrote it.

The problem of JFK’s autograph (and those of later presidents) was ultimately solved by the autopen, a robotic device that inked a consistent version on all correspondence, but Kennedy was not the first to turn to technology for help. President Harry S. Truman was said to have used an autopen in the 1950s, and in the 18th century, statesman Thomas Jefferson used a machine called a polygraph to make copies of his correspondence and to sign more than one document simultaneously. He referred to this early copier, which still exists at his Virginia plantation, Monticello, as the “finest invention of the present age.”

to  “Kilroy Was Here”

X not only marks the spot, it also indicates the consent of people unable to sign their name on legal documents. Under modern law, this type of signature is typically considered binding only if other signing witnesses are present, and although rare, this method is still practiced on occasion, particularly by those who cannot securely hold a pen.

The signature X was commonplace when a large portion of the population was illiterate. The practice reportedly dates to the Middle Ages, when the symbol, reminiscent of the Christian cross, was used to indicate both individual consent and faith. To demonstrate their sincerity, signers also used to kiss the cross they had inscribed on a document, and this is how the X came to represent kisses at the bottom of a letter. The X is thus both a symbol and a talisman for the future, similar to “Kilroy Was Here,” a popular graffiti tag of World War II GIs. A soldier would leave this mark behind as shorthand to indicate his arrival at a particular spot. Those who saw it would generally interpret it as a promise, a good-faith gesture that more soldiers would follow and aid in the fight.

“Kilroy Was Here”
to  John F. Kennedy  (1917–1963 | American president)

The graffito “Kilroy Was Here” is said to have originated in an American shipyard; rigorous inspector James Kilroy would chalk the phrase along a line of rivets to mark the point where he had stopped his tally. When the mysterious words were later found on warships, they became a running joke and good-luck symbol that World War II GIs circulated in Europe and the South Pacific, illustrating it with a cartoonish drawing of a long-nosed man peeping over a wall. Kilroy’s fame did not wane after the war. The drawing inspired singer Paul Page’s victory song “Kilroy Was Here” and encouraged young vandals to scrawl it on walls and school desks all over the U.S. Through such mass reproduction, a “Kilroy” came to mean more than one individual’s mark: It signified the collective identity of a nation.

John F. Kennedy surely encountered this comical sign while he served in the Pacific as a U.S. Navy patrol torpedo boat commander. When he became president, Kennedy had to refashion his own wobbly, inconsistent signature so it could better stand for the nearly 200 million American citizens he represented.

to  Jacob J. Lew  (b. 1955 | American Treasury Secretary)

Along with that of the treasurer, the secretary of the Treasury’s signature on U.S. currency is a guarantee of the value of each Federal Reserve note—a practice initiated in the country’s early days, as a security measure to prevent forgery. Since Jacob J. Lew’s confirmation as Treasury secretary, every new American banknote bears his whirling signature; before he revised it to include at least a couple of identifiable letters, it had been slammed as the worst in government history. Just about any half-talented cupcake froster could probably knock off a forgery of his original John Hancock, so it’s fortunate the Treasury uses additional security measures to guarantee its bills’ authenticity.

The Treasury developed many fraud prevention methods to address the proliferation of counterfeit banknotes in the early 1990s, when an estimated $10 billion worth of bogus bills was circulating. To combat such rampant forgery—a result of rapid advances in reproduction technologies that made scanning, copying and printing fake currency much easier—the Treasury began using reflective inks and multicolor paper. The iridescent strips and watermarks used as anticounterfeiting measures are called “signatures,” just like the original handwritten guarantors of authenticity—but much more secure.

to  Autograph Hounds

In an age when most people’s souvenirs of celebrities are images captured on smartphones, philography (the collecting of autographs) may seem antiquated. Yet the hobby is alive and well, and it supports a surrounding industry of hounds, dealers, authentication services and, of course, professional forgers. Industry analysts claim some three quarters of autographs sold at online auctions are of questionable authenticity. Not that all autographs sold through reputable brick-and-mortar dealerships are necessarily bulletproof either: A fairly sizable number of counterfeit autographs are continually discovered, and some industry experts have set that figure at more than half. Exposed dealers generally invoke the defense that they acted in good faith, did due diligence and, obviously, can’t be present when all the signatures are made.

In 1999 a segment of the TV news show 20/20 revealed the seedy underbelly of the industry, showing footage of a convicted forger effortlessly signing near-perfect autographs. His work fooled even the most knowledgeable experts. Philographers consequently warn against snapping up bargains; avoiding too-good-to-be-true deals is one of the only effective measures against being conned. Increasingly, doing one’s own hounding may be the only guarantee a collector has.

Autograph Hounds
to  X

When autograph hounds ask for a celebrity’s John Hancock or X, they’re obviously using a folksy synonym for autograph. Legend has it, though, that in 1962 baseball star Roger Maris was asked for his X on a ball and took the request literally, signing an X instead of his name. Unfortunately, intention didn’t matter to the disappointed hound, who felt like the butt of a bad joke. The newspapers excoriated the home-run record holder for his wisecrack, much to his dismay. For months Maris had been increasingly viewed as unpleasant and ungrateful, and it didn’t help that the ball was allegedly meant for the son of Fort Lauderdale’s mayor. Sportswriter Jimmy Cannon wrote, “Success has made Roger Maris the most unpopular player in the Yankees,” in a column titled “Maris…The Whiner.” In the 2001 Billy Crystal film 61*, a scene based on the balked signature portrays Maris more sympathetically, as the victim of a misunderstanding, not as a smart aleck. At this point, if Maris’s X ball ever did turn up at auction, it would undoubtedly be worth many times more than a ball sporting Maris’s real signature—if only you could authenticate the X.