In National Archives exhibit, signed letters help tell the story of our nation — and beyond


John Wilkes Booth's calling card to Andrew Johnson, dated April 14, 1865. National Archives, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army). (Courtesy National Archives/Courtesy National Archives)
March 22

It’s the signatures on the nation’s best-known documents, of course, that draw the lines of visitors to the National Archives.

But other than the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other landmark pieces in the Rotunda, the repository of the nation’s paperwork also has notable signatures on a host of other documents that tell the story of the nation in more prosaic terms. They range from George Washington’s letter discussing his decommission from the Continental Army to Michael Jackson’s application for a patent on a trick shoe.

At a time when automated signing machines and Internet signature facsimiles are replacing the intimate, direct stroke of the pen, signatures alone can tell a story of the nation.

Since the name of the 10-month National Archives exhibit that opened March 21 is “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” there are also some signatures made with the “X” mark, such as one from Harriet Tubman asking for a pension for her work in the Civil War as scout, nurse, cook and spy.

And since John Hancock’s may be the best-known signature in the building, there is a second example of his on display that shows that his Declaration of Independence flourish wasn’t a one-time ego blast.

Culled from the billions of records maintained by the Archives, the more than 100 examples in “Making Their Mark” offer surprises both moving and ironic, from 10-year-old Michael Rosenberg’s plaintive letter to President Eisenhower pleading to save his parents from execution (“Please don’t leave my brother and I without a Mommy and Daddy”) to Saddam Hussein’s greeting card of congratulations to his future war foe, George H.W. Bush, following the latter’s 1989 inauguration.

Yes, there are celebrity signatures that autograph hounds would covet – Katharine Hepburn writing on behalf of Ring Lardner Jr., during the Red Scare, Frank Sinatra lauding George H.W. Bush’s efforts to ban burning the American flag (signed “Francis Albert”), and Jackson’s patent application — for shoes that would lock into floors, allowing a dancer to “lean forwardly beyond his center of gravity.”

Most letters have more importance than that, such as Jackie Robinson’s 1958 letter to Eisenhower about the urgent need for civil rights, which came on the letterhead of Chock Full o’ Nuts, of which the baseball giant was vice president.

Or letters from an inmate at a Japanese American internment camp in World War II, who had an issue with signing a loyalty oath.

Fortunately, some White House residents were also autograph collectors: Jackie Kennedy got the Shah of Iran to sign a state dinner menu, and Truman had the foresight to get the signatures of the two other Allied leaders — Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill — on a menu at the 1945 Potsdam Conference at the close of World War II.

One letter is significant because of who didn’t sign it: Two Mercury 7 astronauts refused to sign a 1959 letter supporting cooperation with Russian astronauts. Another shows you can’t always trust a signature, as on Benedict Arnold’s loyalty oath.

Thomas Jefferson’s signature on the 1808 act prohibiting the importation of slaves had the inadvertent effect of stepping up interstate smuggling to fill the demand for slaves, as depicted in the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave.”

The exhibit jumps course from paper when it displays the black and red Narciso Rodriguez dress Michelle Obama wore on election night 2008 and Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, both of which are listed as examples of their “signature styles.”

The idea behind the exhibit, said curator Jennifer Johnson, is “to show the depth and breadth of the holdings of the Archives while telling stories that show how individual signatures made their mark on the American narrative.”

Visitors may find some lapses. Because presidential papers go to the Archives only after a term is complete, there are, for example, no signatures from President Obama.

“Making Their Mark” is also missing one of the most famous celebrity letters to a president: Elvis Presley’s bizarre hand-written note to Richard Nixon asking to become a special agent, scrawled on American Airlines stationery en route to his surprise White House visit in 1970.

Johnson said she thought about including it, “but a lot of items didn’t make it.” She had the task of reducing 400 potential pieces — culled from the Archives and its 17 satellite locations as well as the presidential libraries it administers — to 100 or so.

As if to make up for the cuts, some of the selected documents have signatures of more than one president — usually when one was serving in another office at the time.

But there are some unexpected pieces of official paperwork, including Adolf Hitler’s wedding certificate, confiscated when the Nazi empire crumbled.

There are some side items, exploring early versions of signature-reproducing devices that date back centuries and an example of signature poaching from the Archives’ own holdings: In side-by-side maritime documents signed by Jefferson, one of his signatures is sliced out.

Because of the fragility of paper and ink, some exhibits will be rotated out in the coming months, replaced by facsimiles or, in most cases, other original documents from the Marquis de Lafayette, Gene Kelly, Frederick Douglass and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In addition, Julia Child’s application to the OSS will replace Nixon’s application to the CIA. All offer a reason for repeat visits before the exhibit ends in January.

Catlin is a freelance writer.

Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures

is on display at the National Archives, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, through Jan. 5. For more information, call 202-357-5000 or visitarchives.gov/nae/visit/gallery.html.

READ MORE:

What does the handwriting of Frederick Douglass, Jacqueline Kennedy and Julia Child tell us?

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