(Eric SHansby)

The Personal Signature — long an essential element of commerce and the epistolary arts, once universally accepted as a means of establishing or verifying identity, routinely customized with artistic panache in what for some is the only creative act of their lives, historically popular as a tool for forensic and psychiatric diagnosis — has died. It was as old as literacy, nearly the age of civilization itself.

The exact day and time of death could not be determined, but the demise was confirmed recently over a 12-day experimental period when this writer paid $611.49 for services and merchandise in 17 different transactions at locations across greater Washington, D.C. ... without once signing his own name. Instead, he put down increasingly improbable — indeed, preposterous — pseudonyms at restaurants, gas stations, banks and retail stores; these were written on slips of paper and on electronic signature-capture devices using pen, plastic stylus or forefinger. At no point was any transaction challenged or even momentarily delayed. The “signatures,” such as they were, proved to be as beside-the-point as Scarlett Johansson’s elbows.

The Personal Signature had been known to be in weakened condition for some time, long past its era of maximum cachet, when, in the 18th century, a defiantly flourished autograph on the Declaration of Independence created an enduring synonym for the word itself. Authorities trace the beginning of the signature’s protracted death to the late 1960s, when credit cards began replacing personal checks as the most common instrument of legal tender, meaning that over-the-phone purchases became commonplace. E-mails and e-commerce soon finished the job.

This writer’s experience began accidentally, with the purchase of two pounds of sockeye salmon at the fish counter of a local market. Holding a bag of beets and onions in his left hand, attempting to sign a credit-card receipt with a balky red ballpoint on a too-high counter dappled with fish slime, his “signature” resembled a slapped and splatted mosquito carcass. The merchant accepted it without looking.

Cautiously, this writer began to experiment. Assuming the initial “G” of his name would suffice to survive a quick, careless glance, he purchased a Thai meal as “Gorgeous George,” the nom-de-guerre of an effeminate pro wrestler from the 1950s. (He was also known as The Human Orchid, which I also signed.) These were accepted with no problem.

Caution soon proved to be unnecessary. As it turned out, even gender didn’t matter. The next meal was purchased by “Eleanor of Aquitaine,” the medieval seductress who was the only woman ever to sit on the throne of both England and France.

Being human didn’t matter. At the liquor store, two bottles of chardonnay were sold to “Richard the Lobster.”

Being corporeal didn’t matter. For a propane refill, the hardware store happily accepted “Dreadful Ennui.”

A grocery store was fine with “Severe Bronchitis.” A lunch counter provided eggs over easy to “Government Shutdown.” A convenience store sold the New York Post and New York Daily News to “Osama bin Hitler.”

Williams-Sonoma parted with a foam brush on the strength of a signature from “Banana Bananarama.”

And then the final test: Le Pain Quotidien served up cream cheese and lox, coffee and oatmeal to a very legibly written “Generic Signature.” “Generic Signature” tipped precisely 17.5 percent, of course.

At press time, it was not yet clear what effect the death of The Personal Signature might have elsewhere. We are trying to verify unconfirmed reports that life support has been ordered for The Dotted Line.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com. Find chats and updates at washingtonpost.com/magazine.

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