Nathan Raab writes his own blog on Forbes.com, "Historically Speaking." Below is the most recent post. You can read the Raab Collection article as originally published here.
Busy People and Their Autographs
This month, we have twice run into the evolving American signature. First, President Barack Obama used an autopen to sign into law the “Fiscal Cliff” bill. The autopen is a machine that uses a template to re-create an autograph that is nearly identical to the authentic signature. Second, the Internet convulsed with confusion and apprehension over Jack Lew’s autograph, which would grace our currency if he is confirmed as Treasury Secretary, but which is really just an illegible scribble. Mr. Lew’s scrawl seems like an adaptation made by a busy man with little care for the form of his signature and a need for speed. One supposes that were he to fill out a form with his name he would use actual letters.
Compare his signature:
… to that of Alexander Hamilton as Treasury Secretary:
People got worked up but none of this is new. Busy people find ways to cut corners when it comes to signing their names. The autopen and other signature reproduction technologies are so common that nearly all constituent correspondence coming out of higher up elected officials is signed this way and has been for some time. President Obama does write to people, but these are usually handwritten notes on small note cards. If you get a typed letter from Mr. Obama and there is no additional handwriting on it, you probably have an autopen.
Authentic autograph of President Obama
John Kennedy’s correspondence as Senator was almost always signed by a secretary. Where it is not, you probably couldn’t read it anyway. Albert Einstein used a stamp. So did FDR at times. Even Helen Keller, who did learn to sign her name, extensively used secretaries to keep up. Public figures today face an onslaught of correspondence, and signing every letter yourself and legibly is not always possible.
But when it comes to adapting a signature, one man stands alone, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Unable to properly delegate authority, a ruler but not a manager, Napoleon dictated his letters himself, his aides surrounding him as he wrote to several people simultaneously. His published papers are voluminous, containing hundreds of thousands of letters written during a very short period of time (his rule lasted around 15 years), and he signed almost every one himself. But his signature evolved and changed for the occasion.
Napoleon altered his autograph to read “Bonaparte” from “Buonaparte,” an adaptation he made to seem more French (he was born on Italian-dominated Corsica). He later changed it to “Napoleon” because he felt Emperors should be called only by their first name, as was Charlemagne and Caesar.
No matter what he used, you might have a hard time reading it. The overwhelming percentage of his documents are signed with scribbles, sometimes just on the side of a sheet of paper. Nearly every piece he signed was written by someone else.
Signed “Bonaparte” in a military letter from 1798
Signed “Nap” in this 1806 letter to his son. Even in letters to family, he scribbles his signature. His aide has written in “your affectionate father.”
Signed “Napole” in this 1806 letter to his foreign minister. With an entire p.s. in his hand. This is his handwriting, which is nearly illegible.
An 1806 letter of state, bearing his most uncommon form, “Napoleon,” written out in full.
Signed “NP” in this 1810 letter. This is the most common form of his autograph.
An 1815 notation, signed “NP,” scrawled on the side of another document.
Napoleon, President Obama, and Jack Lew: three busy men who, in spite of the demands on their time, still find that a signature is a necessary part of their day. Maybe with his new prospective gig, Mr. Lew’s autograph will evolve into a form that posterity will recognize. Perhaps he should follow Napoleon’s example and just sign “Jack”… or “JK.”