People used to “sign” their important documents with a mark, sometimes a simple “X,” sometimes some other personal symbol, or even a ring impression in wax. My grandfather sent love letters to his wife-to-be on a nearly daily basis for four years, and signed them RCW, not because he couldn’t spell his own name, though he invented the spelling of a lot of the words he used. Grandpa did not really write anything. He printed, and he did not print well. As he reminisced about his elementary school education, he acknowledged that he preferred to hunt and farm when he was a youngster. He did not spend many days in school. He wanted his children to do better, and they did.
One afternoon in the 1950’s we went to visit Grandma and Grandpa, who lived an hour away from us. We did not find them at home, so we went on to visit someone else in the vicinity, but when we returned to our home, we found notes all around the outside of our house and yard with the sentence, “Kilroy was here.” That was as close to Grandpa’s signing his name “Roy” as I ever saw, but most people knew him as “Carl” anyway.
When I was in school the Palmer Method cursive letters surrounded the classroom. We expended much effort practicing those flowing shapes, holding the pen correctly, not flexing the wrist, but using the whole arm in writing cursive. Even our signatures followed the method. Later my banker brother said that I must individualize my signature, or anyone would be able to copy it who knew how to write. His was truly unique.
Times have changed. Signatures mostly look like people have been coached in signing by their physicians. Illegible marks. Keyboarding has replaced anachronistic cursive in many schools. We return to the mark as sign. When many of our documents require a virtual signature over the Internet, and we never see one another in the process of signing, the X may be more than what is really necessary.
I think about this in connection with my wife’s great-great grandfather whose life I have been researching and trying to reconstruct over several years. He bought and sold many properties during the last half (twenty years) of his life, and the deeds were recorded in the county record book with the notation of “his mark.” Did he know how to read or write or print? We won’t find an answer in those records in which many people “made their mark” who knew how to read. Many knew languages that are no longer spoken or written there, including him, so it may not have been a matter of education that marks were made, but merely a matter of trust. He was there. He made his mark.
Some of the most revered people in history left no inscribed marks of any kind. Perhaps the one most dear to many of us is known still most completely by his cross-shaped X. He left his mark.