The evolution of signatures through the ages

  • Paul Platen
  • Jul 23, 2018

Important documents are signed all the time: wills, contracts, government documents, the list is endless.  And if you are in an executive or management position then you will likely sign many documents every week.

Your signature identifies you, but more importantly it authorises the document your are signing by proving that you agreed to the terms.

Signatures are extremely powerful and have been around for centuries. What follows is a history of some of the most important documents and how they were signed, demonstrating just how signatures have evolved over time:

Magna Carta – 1215

The traditional view of the signature, with ink and  paper, is not how it has always been. One of England’s most important documents, the Magna Carta, was ‘signed’ with the King’s seal, as was typical of the time.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘to sign’ is: “To put a seal upon (a letter or document) as a means of identification or authentication; to stamp with a seal or signet”. Seals were commonly used to authenticate documents and to prevent forgery of legal papers.

Shakespeare’s Signature – 1612

Despite being one of the most well-known figures in history, little is known of William Shakespeare. Only six of the great bard’s signatures have survived, with each one spelling his name differently!

As there were no copyright laws then, his plays went through numerous edits and editions, some authorised and some unauthorised. Often errors crept in during the printing process. The plays we are familiar with are likely to be quite different to the original versions Shakespeare wrote.

American Declaration of Independence – 1776

The United States of America celebrates Independence Day on the 4th of July, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed. But it wasn’t actually signed on this date; this is the day that congress adopted the declaration. The signing happened over a period of several weeks, with many of the delegates signing the document later, most likely because it was difficult to get all 56 delegates together in one place.

Treaty of Waitangi – 1840

About 40 chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840. By the end of the year, about 500 other Māori, including 13 women, had put their names or moko to the document; all but 39 signed the Māori text. Following the meeting at Waitangi, the treaty circulated around the country for Māori to sign. Between February and September 1840, missionaries, traders and officials explained its terms at 50 or so signing meetings from the far north of the North Island to Ruapuke Island in Foveaux Strait.

Travel was difficult and sometimes risky, so the treaty was copied to ensure it was not lost. Some copies were made by hand, while 200 copies of the Māori text were printed on 17 February. There is no record of the total number of copies made.

The Beatles Contract with Manager Brian Epstein – 1962

Signed just before the release of their first single ‘Love Me Do’, the contract between The Beatles and their manager Brian Epstein signifies the beginning of the band’s success.

The contract recently sold for £365,000 at auction. As Sotheby’s specialist in English Literacy and Manuscripts, Dr Gabriel Heaton, stated: “Without this contract, and the relationship it represents, it seems inconceivable that the Beatles could have achieved all that they did”. A signature is worth much more than the paper it is on as it signifies an agreement between two parties. In business, a contract is the start of a relationship and an important document to begin working together.

Why digital signing can help you

While many still prefer to sign with a pen, electronic, and more specifically digital signatures, are achieving widespread adoption.  Digital signing offers a number of benefits over traditional ink signing:

  • Documents can be securely signed by multiple parties regardless of where they are in the world at that point in time – reducing postage and travel costs, sign-off time, reducing each individual’s carbon footprint and the likelihood of fraud. If this was available in 1776, the Declaration of Independence could have been signed quicker!
  • Digital Signatures provide greater security, and when combined with strong user authentication, can significantly reduce the risk of fraud and strengthen compliance with standards. 
  • Embedded trusted timestamps show when a document was signed, by who and prove the document hasn’t been altered since it was signed – maybe Shakespeare could have benefited from this?
  • For business users, you can add flexibility, streamlined workflow and high-trust, strong encryption and lowered costs to the list of benefits. 
  • Digital Signatures give you CERTAINTY – certainty of reliability, retention and retrieval, something that will benefit all organisations that are starting their digital transformation journey.