Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Interesting Discovery about Old Documents

One example of someone using initals as their mark
While working with a collection of legal documents from the 1730s to the 1820s I discovered something interesting about signatures in early America. Previously I had been familiar with the idea of someone making a mark when they are unable to write their name. However, I had always assumed that these marks are almost always simple x’s . Working with the Hanson collection, my assumption has been proved over-simplistic. While it seems that many people chose to make their mark with an X, others were able to sign their initials.
A woman was asked to witness,
despite her inability to write
Additionally, the way that marks were presented is different than I expected. I had thought that people made a mark on a document and that was that. However, when given more thought, how would anyone know to whom the mark belonged? Well it turns out that when someone signed a document with a mark, the scribe or court official would write that person’s name around the mark and indicate that the mark was indeed his or her mark. This practice may have created some confusion, because often beside the signatures of those who had signed for themselves was a bubble with the letters LS inside. After some musing I decided LS most likely stood for Legal Signature, as a way of distinguishing between those who could sign their own names and those who could only make a mark.
L S, most likely meaning Legal Signature

It would be interesting to make a closer study of these marks, to see if any patterns emerge, in terms of who can sign their names and who cannot. I think that such a study might provide interesting insight into literacy in Early America.

1 comment:

  1. I have found the same on a 1727 Will. The signer's name on either side of what appears to be a mark that incorporates the signer's initials. Unfortunately I have only one example, thus I am guilty of speculating without the fact. I wish I could find a collection of examples.