Special Collections and University Archives

Throughout history, signatures have wielded great power and importance. From John Hancock’s elaborate signature on the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to General Douglas MacArthur signing the Japanese’s surrender documents in 1945, a person’s signature has conferred identity and intent. Latin for “to sign,” a signature is a handwritten and sometime stylized description of a person’s name. The way in which a person writes his or her name changes throughout their life. However, just like a thumbprint, each person’s signature has its own unique characteristics.

The history of signatures can be traced back to 3000 B.C. when the Sumerian culture would affix seals to documents as a way to confirm authenticity. As the evolution of writing and the alphabet progressed, the use of handwritten representations of one’s name on documents to denote legitimacy and purpose expanded. To combat forgery, the Roman Empire created public notary’s who were minor government officials responsible for verify the identity of individuals and their signature. The use of signatures expanded beyond just formal documents with the rise of literacy and individualism during the Renaissance era (1300-1600 A.D) when people began to be recognized for their genius and achievement. The result was the artist’s signature and with it a new step in the evolution of the use and meaning of signatures.

While signatures are still used in today’s society to confirm identity, intent, and credit, they have also spawned a new phenomenon: autograph collecting. People who are into philography, the term used to describe the hobby of autograph collecting, seek a variety of signatures including those of Presidents, sports figures, celebrities, and other historical figures. While some people collect autographs simply for their historical value, others do so for profit. One of the most famous signatures in world is Abraham Lincoln’s whose autograph fetched $748,000 in 1991.

In recognition of the importance of signatures to history, The Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives has selected from its collections a sample of historical signatures. Spanning over 220 years of United States history, the signatures touch on such issues as: women, North Carolina, Americana, UNCG, and U.S. Presidents. Some of the highlights from the exhibit include signatures by President Thomas Jefferson, woman suffrage movement activist Susan B. Anthony, scientist Albert Einstein, UNCG founder Charles Duncan McIver, and inspirational figure and advocate Helen Keller. This exhibit will be on display in the Hodges Reading Room from October 10, 2011 – January 16, 2012.

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