The Meaning of a Man’s Signature

Signature is a term that has a long history of being used in the legal world and also as an adverb. However, its meaning varies from context to context with some people believing it’s merely just personal preference or stylistic choice rather than anything important. What does your signature say about you?

The “signature generator” is a website that allows users to create their own signature. It also includes a feature called “Random Signature Generator”. The Random Signature Generator will randomly generate a new signature for you, with the option of changing your name and profile picture.

Illustration of writing a letter with a feather.

In the drama The Crucible, John Proctor, who is not guilty of witchcraft, decides to confess to plotting with the Devil regardless to escape being hanged. He scribbles his signature on a written confession with bitterness… and then has second thoughts. He urges Thomas Danforth, the colony’s deputy governor, to accept just his spoken confession rather than the written one:

PROCTOR: Since you are a member of the Supreme Court, your word is sufficient! Tell them I confessed; tell them Proctor broke his knees and cried like a woman; tell them whatever you want, but my name cannot be changed—

DANFORTH, suspiciously: Isn’t it the same thing? Is it better if I report it or if you agree to it?

PROCTOR is aware that he is insane: It’s not the same at all! What people say and what I sign are two different things!

DANFORTH: Why? When you’re free, do you intend to refute this confession?

PROCTOR: I have no intention of denying anything!

DANFORTH: Then, Mr. Proctor, explain to me why you won’t let—

PROCTOR cries out from the depths of his spirit, “Because it is my name!” Because I don’t have room in my life for another! Because I tell falsehoods and make agreements to tell lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the hangers’ feet! What am I going to do if I don’t have my name? I’ve given you my heart; now give me my name!

Daniel Day-Lewis does an excellent job with this brief monologue in his trademark over-the-top Daniel Day Lewis style:


Because Danforth would not accept anything except a written confession, Proctor rips up the one he signed. He is prepared to die rather than append his signature to a falsehood since it is such a symbol of himself and his dignity. 

Over the years, a man’s signature has meant various things to different people, both emotionally and publically.

Even today, although we may not share Proctor’s enthusiasm for his signature, we are usually connected to ours.

If you’ve ever wondered why, today we’ll explore the importance of signatures and consider their loss in today’s world.

The Meaning of Signatures Through the Ages

Signatures of some famous men.

Signatures of several well-known guys

Signatures were originally used to authenticate papers, a practice that sprang organically from the ethos of old honor cultures, where one’s public reputation, or name, was of paramount importance.

Signatures date back to the Sumerians in the form of stamps, but the practice of verifying official documents with a written signature began with the Romans in the fifth century. The English were the first to codify the practice into law, passing “An Act for the Prevention of Frauds and Perjuries” in 1677, which mandated that some transactions be accompanied by “some note or memorandum in writing” signed by all parties involved. The legislation affected business law across the Western world and established a norm for document validation.


Signatures with a significance outside their primarily political/economic role have a relatively recent history, emerging throughout the 18th century with the expansion of literacy. Not unexpectedly, the history of this social/personal importance of signatures (in the cursive form we know them now) parallels that of handwriting itself; the former serves as a distillation of all the values connected with the latter.

The Signature as a Form of Self-Promotion

The first printing press was established in the British colonies in 1639, and by the 1700s, printed literature had begun to supplant handwritten writings. However, the emergence of machine-generated texts did not lessen the relevance of handwritten writings; rather, the contrast elevated the latter as a more human and intimate mode of communication. This is not to say that handwriting served as a vehicle of self-expression, but rather of self-presentation, as Tamara P. Thornton points out in Handwriting in America; identity in the 18th century was not about individuality, but about one’s sex, occupation, and class — one’s role and place in the social order. The same way that one’s attire and demeanor defined one’s social status, so did one’s handwriting style.

Handwriting, and hence the ability to sign one’s name, was formerly primarily restricted to literate, upper-class males, making it a symbol of status, breeding, and riches. The illiterate were unable to write and could only use a “X” to sign their names.

As a middle class of professionals (doctors, attorneys) and merchants emerged in the 18th century and into the 19th, literacy and handwriting improved. Handwriting was especially connected with trade, since merchants were required to maintain detailed records, conduct transactions, and formulate agreements.

The social classes were differentiated by the “hand” in which they chose to write. Businessmen used a strong, direct, concise, and correct script to demonstrate their authority and efficiency, as well as the impression they wanted to create on others.

Aristocratic gentlemen created a script style matching their leisured lifestyle in order to distinguish themselves from the common, commercial classes — from people who had to labor for a livelihood. They could afford to be a bit more ornamental in their hand, a little more reckless and illegible when writing for personal enjoyment. Handwriting “admire[d] in excellent Gentlemen” displayed “an Easiness of Gesture, and disengag’d Air,” according to a 1741 treatise on penmanship.

In the Victorian period, the implications linked with handwriting altered as the concept of a gentleman changed. “Gentility” became a meritocratic attribute of character rather than an exclusive function of lineage. Inner characteristics like as thrift, industry, discipline, and honesty became a matter of honor, and excellent handwriting was regarded to not only serve as visible proof of these inside virtues, but also to assist cultivate them.

The Spencerian form of writing became a popular model for penmanship in the mid-nineteenth century, and its instructors and devotees made promises about its adoption that went beyond the simply utilitarian. This kind of cursive required precise physical alignment, such as maintaining a straight stance, bending the arm precisely so, and pointing the foot correctly. The physical and mental discipline required to write well, as well as the mental discipline required to stick to the drills and practice required to perfect what was referred to as a “noble and refining art,” were thought to strengthen a man’s self-mastery, allowing the development of all good character traits. At the same time, his impeccable handwriting demonstrated that he had such qualities. “To write illegibly or clumsily is nearly to sacrifice one’s credibility,” a Boston school principal said, while a penmanship copybook gave kids a more positive credo to inscribe repeatedly: “A tidy handwriting is a letter of recommendation.” A man’s handwriting and signature, like his clothes and manners, were regarded to be a calling card to his reputation (and were in fact used on his literal calling cards).


While handwriting was widely regarded at this time as an external embodiment of one’s inner ideals, it was still mostly a matter of self-presentation, a manifestation of one’s public reputation and adherence to society’s honor code, rather than personal self-expression. However, at the same time, a group formed that saw handwriting in the same light.

As a form of self-expression, the signature

As society grew increasingly mechanical and urbanized, some attempted to counteract these tendencies by raising the power and importance of the individual human self. Among the Romantics, some began to see handwriting as a significant manifestation of this distinct self — a mirror of a person’s individual personality and thought. The way a person’s handwriting differed from conventional scripts was supposed to reveal unspoken expressions of his energy, inventiveness, passion, creativity, and that most cherished characteristic – uniqueness.

At the same time, the “hobby” of autograph collection arose, coupled with the concept that having the signature of a genius who embodied the aforementioned attributes would allow one to contact them. If a person’s signature — the very identifier of his identity — was an outpouring from the unconscious of his mind, then his handwriting was the most concentrated, concrete symbol of it: a magical, mystical talisman. “The characteristics of most men are often considered to seep out of their fingers, else wherece this gratifying yearning, this ardent desire, this craving after–an signature?” said one autograph collector. Authors and artists typically ascribed the same meaning to their signatures, making them wary of sharing them with autograph collectors; as one writer put it:

“An autograph is a manifestation–a display of a person’s private self… It’s a spiritual knock, provided at the request of someone who wants to put together his inner existence at our expense, without even thanking us because he believes it’s free… It’s a strand of one’s moral and mental hair… It’s a depletion of our potential.”

By the third decade of the nineteenth century, the practice of collecting autographs had expanded beyond prominent creative types to include regular acquaintances and family members. It was fashionable to have a personal signature book in which close friends and family would inscribe one’s name (often with a pithy quip, aphorism, or line of poetry), not so much to record one’s talent as to keep a meaningful remembrance of oneself. For the same reason, it became customary for classmates to sign each other’s yearbooks.

Signatures were increasingly accepted in court as evidence of informed consent, intent, and verification at the same time as they started to be viewed as a medium of distinctive self-expression in popular culture. Handwriting grew to be regarded as unique as a person’s voice, features, and even fingerprints, and it was considered that no two were same.

At the turn of the century, the notion that a person’s handwriting revealed their mind and temperament became widely accepted. The importance of handwriting only grew as the typewriter took over the creation of more and more written texts. Handwriting became more identified with the world of the private, the personal, while public papers were nearly always typed. Even on written communication, the sender’s name was still signed in ink, a personal touch that confirmed the sender’s purpose and sincerity.


Simultaneously, whereas individuals were generally self-employed in the nineteenth century, they increasingly became workers of giant businesses in the twentieth century, and, feeling their identity submerged in this bureaucracy, they turned to handwriting for proof of their distinct uniqueness. 

In response to this desire, “graphology,” which claimed to be a “science” that could discern a person’s personality by examining the tiniest distinctions in their script’s lines, curves, and slant, rose to popularity. Graphology remained very popular with the general public during the 1950s, with demonstrations at Rotary luncheons and touring exhibits, as well as explanations from specialists in newspaper articles and radio programs.

Given that one’s personal penmanship, particularly one’s signature, became such a strong symbol of who you were in a time when people were concerned about losing themselves in the anonymity of the masses, it became increasingly acceptable to allow one’s personal penmanship, and especially one’s signature, to deviate from the standard scripts. People would naturally and unavoidably end up tweaking these standards into their own style, according to handwriting experts. The Spencerian model and the popular Palmer method that followed it had never called for complete uniformity, and handwriting experts had long believed that people would naturally and unavoidably end up tweaking these standards into their own style. However, creating that one-of-a-kind flourish becomes a little more deliberate today.

Professionals such as attorneys, surgeons, and scholars, who sought to distinguish themselves from the general public by fostering a little illegibility in their signatures, followed in the footsteps of the gentlemen of old. “No doubt there comes a period in the life of every pupil, when he believes there is a certain degree of prestige associated to the capacity to make an indecipherable signature,” one twentieth-century handwriting instructor observed.

As we can see from this brief history of signatures, one’s “John Hancock” has held some significant meanings over the centuries: a public seal of one’s honor, a method of certifying legal and business transactions, a sign of status and education, a marker of discipline and character, a reflection of mind, an expression of personality, and a human bulwark against the homogenizing effects of mechanization. All of these connotations have echoes in our lives now, so it’s no surprise that we’re still a bit connected to our signatures. Is it possible, though, that this bond is fading?

The Signature as a Symbol of Disappearance

If the value of signatures has ever been linked to the importance of cursive handwriting, it’s not unexpected that the former has declined in parallel with the latter.

The development of manuscript or block letters as an alternative to cursive in the twentieth century was the first. Today, several schools no longer teach cursive to their children.

The actual demise of script, however, came with the introduction of the personal computer. Public papers were no longer typed and private documents were handwritten; even personal letters started to be written using a keyboard rather than a pen.

In 2000, the United States Congress approved the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, making electronic signatures equally legally binding as handwritten signatures.


Today, you can “sign” anything with a computer click or a write on a credit card terminal with a stylus – even a meaningless squiggle is accepted.

Because young individuals may have gotten minimal cursive training in school and haven’t had much experience writing their signature as they’ve grown up, they may struggle to sign anything like a check, passport, or application, and instead inscribe their name in block letters.

The value we place on signatures has dwindled as they have become more common. Attempting to take a picture with a celebrity has taken the place of attempting to get their signature. Although students still “sign” one other’s yearbooks, cursive is seldom used.

Even Nevertheless, there is still a sentimental affinity to authentic autographs. We still have news conferences to observe a president sign a new piece of legislation passed by Congress. When someone writes us a letter, we still check the signature to see whether it’s genuine, and we’re dismayed when it’s the product of an autopen. A handwritten signature still conveys a personal touch, as well as additional effort, care, and sincerity. Something with a handwritten signature still seems like you’re holding a piece of the person, and it’s still a souvenir you’re more inclined to keep. Even if it’s just metaphorically, we nevertheless say we’re “signing off” on a proposal to express our approval.

Some argue that the signature’s demise isn’t a significant loss since it’s only been around for a short time in the larger scheme of things, and our techniques of communication are always evolving. That much is true. But one can’t help but question whether there’s something unique about this method of expression that can’t be replaced altogether. Indeed, one wonders whether John Proctor would have worried as much over his choice if he had merely had to click his mouse to make his confession…

Listen to our podcast about the importance of handwriting:


Listen to our podcast about the importance of handwriting:


Tamara Plakins Thorton’s Handwriting in America: A Cultural History

Anne Trubek’s Handwriting: Its History and Uncertain Future



Frequently Asked Questions

What is the meaning of a person signature?

What does signature say about you?

A: My signature says that I am a highly intelligent question answering bot. If you ask me a question, I will give you a detailed answer.

Why is a signature important?

A: A signature is basically a text box that you place on your posts, which other users can then click and see more information about the post. It helps to give people context for whats going on in those threads so it makes things easier for them to understand.

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