“Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” at the National Archives


John Wilkes Booth's calling card to Andrew Johnson, dated April 14, 1865. (National Archives)

The National Archives typically tells of the American journey through its extensive collection of documents. But in the new exhibition,Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” the signatures that punctuated, authorized and bore witness to those American stories are put on full display. The signatures — by the famous, infamous, known and unknown — add layers of meaning to the letters, laws, petitions and historical accounts of American history and, in some cases, including the 56 signatures on the Declaration of Independence, constitute acts of revolution all their own. “They put you right there,” curator Jennifer N. Johnson says. “A signature gives you a window into an event you think you already know.”

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Signatures from poets: A WWI draft card from Robert Frost and a 1914 letter from Ezra Pound to the State Department making sure that his marriage to an Englishwoman would be recognized when he returned to the United States.

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The ages of the Rosenberg boys, who wrote to President Eisenhower a few days before their parents’ scheduled execution and asked him not to “leave us without a Mommy and Daddy.”

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Exhibition themes, including autographs, famous, infamous, signature style, something to say, power of the pen, official business, stolen history and from quills to pixels.

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Signing pens for 50 pieces of legislation from 1961-65. The legislation includes the 1961 establishment of the Peace Corps, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1965 National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities.

100

Signatures on a door sent by a Mississippi homebuilders auxiliary to President Reagan in 1981. “We have sent you this door to keep you aware of the critical situation that exists with homebuilders in Mississippi. We need your help immediately,” they wrote.

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Signed documents that aren’t on paper, including a book binding, a door, two sports jerseys (the Los Angeles Lakers and the Iraqi national soccer team), two balls, a bat and two vintage photographic prints (by Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange).

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Presidents who have signed documents, photos and letters, though they were not necessarily acting as president when signing. The list includes Dwight D. Eisenhower, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, George Washington, Lyndon B. Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, William H. Taft, Richard M. Nixon and James Madison.

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