Signing the Declaration of Independence: Signatures Added 2 August 1776

The formal celebration for the signing of the Declaration of Independence is July 4th. 50 signers met 2 August to actually sign the document. 5 more signed later in the year. 1 signed almost a year later. We value the signatures as much as we value the words of the document itself.

The same is (or would be) true of the signatures on your genealogy records if we considered the full value these writings hold.

Before formal signatures became common (sometime in the late sixteenth century), documents were sealed with wax, gold, or lead dropped onto the paper at the end of the writing. A signet ring or a sealing stick, engraved with a coat of arms, initials, or a personal symbol was pressed into the seal. By comparing the color, size, shape, design, contents, and the way the seal was attached to the document–some seals were made on ribbon or strips of parchment hanging off the edge of the document–you can determine record authenticity.

Once the use of signatures or personal marks became common, the original documents and often official copies made by rulers, civil and ecclesiastical officials were formally signed. Genealogists can learn the study of handwriting to disclose some of the most interesting and valuable evidence for your ancestors:

  1. Personal identity. While handwriting can change with age, physical condition, extensive writing where the hand and fingers are fatigued as well as the mind, and the specific writing instruments and paper used, there will be elements in the signature over time that remain the same.
  2. State of health, including age. My father’s signature was finely written, steady and flowing, along a straight line–real or imaginery. As he got older, he could not maintain the straight direction of his letters and he became very conscious that his name appeared slightly different. As his eyesight deteriorated, he suggested that he make a mark over a signature written by someone else. More than once, I helped guide his hand, so he could sign with his name.
  3. Education. Level of education, school of thought, and actual place of study may all be recognizable in your signature. As you make each letter and as your ancestors dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s, the these characteristics are revealed.
  4. Character traits. The inner person is visible through letters placed on paper. Your local public library will have shelves of handwriting analysis guides. Pick out one and read the fascinating details your signature discloses about you. Then apply these same techniques against the signatures of your ancestors.
  5. Original spellings of your surname. And how these spellings changed over time–from pronunciation, from emphasis, and be design. Just be careful–when you consciously change your handwriting style. When you switch from left to right hand. When you enlarge or decrease the size of your letters. You can change your character.
  6. Country of origin. Sometimes actual locality or community of origin. I recommend that you read a few pages in Helm Wotzkow’s The Art of Hand Lettering. A Dover art publication published in 1952. There is a section where people from various countries were asked to write the same short sentence. Their countries of origin are stated by each example. It is a quick study in writing practices that surface when you least expect them to.

Study carefully the way each letter is written and how the letters in each word relate to each other as you read the documents. Please slow down and take the time to examine the signatures so that you can compare and match them from document to document. Your favorite genealogical evidence guru, Arlene Eakle.

PS At one time, I was the short-term custodian of a large collection of original German wax seals for a large area of Prussia. Until I began to write this Genealogy News Sheet episode, I had forgotten about that collection. Each seal had a small niche carved into little shelves inside a large wooden box. Somewhere, I believe that I retained a copy of the personal name and surname list for that collection. When the new owner came to get it, I did not want to part with the box and its precious contents.

PPS I have immersed myself in Swiss parish churchbooks this past few weeks for an important family reunion report. And I will be sharing some essential observations about the importance of place in those and other records. Ignore these observations at your genealogical peril!

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