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The History Of Signatures And Their Present Relevance


You know the expression signed, sealed and delivered. Well, the first word in that list may be losing its place in society. The signature is becoming less and less relevant as a personal identifier. Even major credit card companies have turned away from what used to be a mandatory John Hancock on your transaction. In the recent midterm elections, thousands of ballots in Florida were held up because of so-called signature mismatches. Election workers determined that signatures on ballots didn't match those officially on file. That may simply be because signatures aren't what they used to be, especially among the young. Tamara Plakins Thornton is a University of Buffalo professor who's written a history of handwriting in the United States. And she joins us on the show. Tamara, welcome.

TAMARA PLAKINS THORNTON: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

PFEIFFER: Are you a believer that the signature is an endangered species?

PLAKINS THORNTON: Well, yes. I do think it's endangered. But I guess I don't get all warm and fuzzy about handwriting where I feel we need to somehow save this species. Signatures to us, at least in the recent past, did mean a way to express our individuality, our distinctiveness. That I get warm and fuzzy about. Sure, I want us to be able to do that. How we do it, whether we do it through hand writing - not so important.

PFEIFFER: It's true that signatures used to be very specific to a person, kind of like a fingerprint. But as our staff talked about this, some younger staffers said they rarely sign anything. Some people said they use different types of signatures for personal versus business transactions. Other people said their signature has eroded over time. Do you hear this type of thing too? And if so, what's driving it?

PLAKINS THORNTON: Well, I do. You know, signatures, for a long time, were a kind of zone of self-expression. So people did use signatures as a way to express their distinctiveness. And people would take pride in that. But that's not what's going on anymore.

PFEIFFER: When I heard that some signatures on midterm ballots didn't match signatures on file, that didn't surprise me because I often just write a messy scrawl when I'm signing things. And that wouldn't match my official signature either.


PFEIFFER: Does that say something about whether there's a flaw in this aspect of our election system?

PLAKINS THORNTON: I think that that's probably true. And I think it's worth noting that we have not always assumed that every person's signature is distinct. It's really only in the mid-1800s that, even in the court system - legally - the notion comes about that your signature is a distinctive biomarker.

PFEIFFER: Where are some of the places that signatures are still required? And does it surprise you that they still are?

PLAKINS THORNTON: I have noticed more where they're not required. For example, when I write letters of recommendation for students to get into graduate school, that really - it's all online now. And instead of even having to do a facsimile signature, I just type it in and check a box saying, yup, it's me. And really, what's being checked is my IP address, not me.

PFEIFFER: Interesting.

PLAKINS THORNTON: That seems a little problematic to me.

PFEIFFER: If signatures are fading away, what do you think will take their place?

PLAKINS THORNTON: If we want to establish identity, we're going with biomarkers. And, of course, a signature is understood as a biomarker. But how we're going to use signatures, though, to express our individual distinctiveness, well, that's changing. I think it's really interesting how people are flocking toward getting their genomes done, right? 23andMe and Ancestry.com - and this has all of a sudden taken off, it seems to me. So I think - I'm curious to see what the next step is.

PFEIFFER: So let's say 50 years or so down the line - do you feel like signatures will be kind of an old-fashioned craft on display at a booth at a renaissance fair? Are we actually going there?

PLAKINS THORNTON: I don't expect handwriting to end. I think the death of handwriting is greatly exaggerated. Handwriting, I think, is with us to stay. It just has a different niche. And I think what's changing is that handwriting is not necessarily a place where we express our distinctiveness.

PFEIFFER: Tamara Plakins Thornton is a professor of history at the University of Buffalo. Tamara, thank you very much.

PLAKINS THORNTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.