“Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” is based on an exhibition at the National Archives’ Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC. This online exhibit is an invitation to explore some of those stories behind the millions of signatures that rest in our holdings.
A signature can be as routine as a mark on a form or as extraordinary as a stroke of the pen that changes the course of history. Through their signatures, for example, the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence simultaneously committed the brave (or dangerously foolish) act of treason against King George III and created a new nation. However, today, when you make a credit card purchase, sign a mortgage contract, or even a marriage license, your signature is likely to be electronic. Legislation allowing electronic signatures to formalize a contract, or allowing the autopen to authenticate a law is leading us further away from personalized marks, symbolized by John Hancock’s famous and distinctive signature.
These stories illustrate the many ways people have placed their signature on history, from developing a “Signature Style” to signing policy into law in “Power of the Pen.” The stories in these records are part of our nation’s history, all having made their marks on the American narrative.
Imagine Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Harry S. Truman sitting at a dinner during the Potsdam Conference in 1945 making decisions for a post–World War II world. At some moment, aware of history-in-the-making or the power assembled in the room, Truman passes his menu around to be signed. Even world leaders respond to the lure of an autograph, just as people in all walks of life seek and collect signatures from athletes, actors, and singers every day. What gives an autograph its power?
Taking a moment
Hosted by Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia at his castle, Cecilienhof, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in Potsdam, Germany, as World War II was coming to an end. It would be the first and only time Truman and Stalin would meet.
On the fifth night of the conference, the participants took a break from their negotiations to attend a lavish dinner. During the evening, President Truman passed around his program, for the attendees to sign. On the cover are the autographs of Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin. Inside, are signatures of many that attended that night.
U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill
A gift of thanks
For nearly 20 years, Iraq’s national football (soccer) team played under the oppressive and brutal leadership of Saddam Hussein’s oldest son, Uday Hussein. In 2007, under new coaches, the team won the Asian Cup for the first time. The win, which signaled Iraq’s return to greatness on the international football scene, united Iraqi citizens and offered hope to the war-torn nation. This jersey is signed by the 2007 team and other officials. It was presented to President Obama by the Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki in 2009.
Short = less than a full measure
Snort = mixed drink
King George VI of England, the last Viceroy to India Lord Mountbatten, and President Roosevelt’s son Elliott Roosevelt are a just a few of the 90-plus men and women who signed General Eisenhower’s short snorters, a collection of nineteen bank notes, representing over 10 countries. Short snorters date to the 1920s, when pilots in the Alaskan bush started the tradition of signing and exchanging currency and then sharing a drink with those they traveled with or met along the way. The tradition was adopted by the military.
Given to President Reagan in 1988, this Los Angeles Lakers shirt is signed by the team, including Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy. Credited for playing some of the best basketball ever seen, the team had the best record in the National Basketball Association for the 1987-1988 season and had just won their 5th championship of the decade.
Famous signatures are scattered throughout the National Archives holdings. Some worked for the Federal government and can be found in personnel files. Others are signed letters to Presidents or government officials. A notable pop star’s signature is found on patent paperwork. Why did Katharine Hepburn, Jackie Robinson, or Johnny Cash sign their names at the bottom of the following letters? Do their signatures lead to a deeper story?
Vouching for “an old friend”
Actress Katharine Hepburn worked with Ring Lardner, Jr., on the film Woman of the Year, which they were both nominated and he won an Academy Award for best screenplay. Hepburn wrote to the U.S. Board of Parole on behalf of Lardner, Jr. on September 1, 1950.
Early during the Cold War, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigated allegations of Communist activity in the film industry. In 1947, Lardner, Jr., and 19 others suspected of being Communists were called to testify. After they refused to answer the Committee’s questions, Lardner, Jr., and nine others were found guilty of contempt of Congress. Blacklisted from Hollywood, they became known as the “Hollywood 10,” and Lardner was imprisoned. By signing this letter, Hepburn opened herself to the risk of having her career destroyed. Few who were blacklisted were able to return to Hollywood.
“Oh no! Not again.”
Jackie Robinson’s entry into Major League Baseball ended 60 years of racial segregation in that sport. Off the baseball field, Robinson campaigned tirelessly for civil rights for blacks. In this letter to President Eisenhower, Robinson, then vice president of personnel at Chock Full O’Nuts, criticizes comments Eisenhower made urging blacks to have patience in their struggle for equality.
Support from “The Man in Black”
Country music artist Johnny Cash wrote to President Gerald R. Ford on September 10, 1974, expressing support for Ford’s recent controversial decisions. Two days earlier, the President had issued an unconditional pardon of Richard Nixon for crimes he might have committed as President. That same day, Ford also revealed plans to introduce an amnesty program for Vietnam War draft resisters.
Singer, songwriter, dancer, inventor?
Michael Jackson started performing at six with his brothers as the Jackson Five, and grew up to become an internationally famous, award-winning star, known as the “King of Pop.” This patent for a shoe which allows the “wearer to lean forwardly beyond his center of gravity” was created by Jackson and two other designers, so he could perform live on stage a signature move that he’d previously done in the music video for “Smooth Criminal.” The trick had previously been accomplished for the “Smooth Criminal” video using wires. Jackson was known for using unique moves like this and the Moonwalk to enhance his stage performances.
These three examples are a small selection of some of the infamous signatures that are preserved in the National Archives. Each has a unique story. From captured records to a greeting card, read on to find out more about the stories behind their signatures.
“Don’t wish to disturb you”
On the afternoon of April 14, 1865, just hours before he assassinated President Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth left this calling card for Vice President Andrew Johnson at his Washington D.C. hotel. Booth’s co-conspirator, George Atzerodt was to kill Johnson that night, but he lost his nerve and did not make an attempt. Historians continue to debate why Booth left his card with Johnson.
“Are you willing to take Our Fuehrer Adolf Hitler as your husband”
In the early morning of April 29, 1945 as Soviet troops closed in on his bunker, Adolf Hitler married his longtime companion Eva Braun. Less than 40 hours after their marriage, the newlyweds committed suicide together.
Adolf and Eva Hitler’s marriage certificate signed by them and by witnesses Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann, as well as the registrar of marriage they pulled in from Berlin just before 1am to perform the ceremony.
General Eisenhower was looking for a practical garment when he asked for the standard issue field jacket to be tailored for him, creating what came to be known as the “Ike jacket.” President Johnson had a unique way of achieving his political goals, and First Ladies Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Obama are recognized for their own signature style.
Jackie’s pillbox hat
This pillbox hat, worn during her husband’s 1960 campaign for President, was one of Jackie Kennedy’s signature looks. The First Lady became a fashion icon for women around the world, wearing pillbox hats, gloves above the elbow, A-line dresses, over-sized sunglasses, and strands of pearls.
First Lady Michelle Obama wore this Narcisco Rodriguez dress on the night of the 2008 presidential election, when Barack Obama was elected as the first African-American President of the United States. Since then, the First Lady’s signature issues have taken the spotlight – from helping kids get healthy, to supporting our military families, to ensuring all our young people work hard to reach their dreams. And her clothing choices have supported her work. As Mrs. Obama said, “I always say that women should wear whatever makes them feel good about themselves. That’s what I always try to do. . . . I also believe that if you’re comfortable in your clothes, it’s easy to connect with people and make them feel comfortable as well. In every interaction that I have with people, I always want to show them my most authentic self.”
The “Ike” jacket
General Dwight D. Eisenhower considered the Army’s World War II military uniform to be restricting and poorly suited for combat. Instead he had a standard issue wool field jacket tailored to be “very short, very comfortable, and very natty looking.” The resulting “Eisenhower jacket” or “Ike jacket,” as it came to be known, was standard issue to American troops after November 1944.
The “Johnson Treatment”
Standing at 6 feet 4 inches tall, President Lyndon Baines Johnson used his imposing stature as one tool in his own brand of political persuasion, known as the "Johnson treatment.” LBJ used his “treatment,” shown in the photographs above, to intimidate, badger, flatter, or plead in order to achieve his political goals.
The day-to-day business of the government can reveal some surprising finds. These stories show how even draft cards can reveal famous names and also highlighted here is a documentary made by an Oscar winning icon in Hollywood, before his Hollywood days.
From senators across the aisle to competing presidential candidates
Signed “Barry,” Senator Barry Goldwater wrote Senator Lyndon Johnson bluntly expressing his opinion of Johnson’s acceptance of the Democratic candidacy for Vice President. He wrote, “you were intended for great things, but I don’t think you are going to achieve them now.” Goldwater’s prediction did not quite come true, as four years later Johnson defeated Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election by one of the largest landslides in history.
Registering for the World War I draft
As World War I began, the United States Army was fairly small, and by 1916, it was clear that more troops were needed if the United States were to enter the conflict. Initially, President Wilson desired an army made up of volunteers and wanted 1 million men, but six weeks after declaring war, only 73,000 had volunteered to serve.
On May 18, 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act. It authorized the Federal Government to expand the military.
Approximately 24 million men registered, which was almost a quarter of the population in 1918. Not all men who registered actually served. By the end of World War I, 2.8 million had been drafted and 2 million men had volunteered. When the armistice ending the war was signed on November 11, 1918, the activities of the Selective Service System greatly decreased, and by 1919 all activities were terminated.
Let There Be Light documentary in the dark for years
John Huston’s career as a filmmaker, writer, and actor spanned over four decades. Before becoming an Oscar-winning icon in Hollywood, he made three films for the Army. Let There Be Light was his third and final war documentary. Huston used his revolutionary style to create documentaries that are ranked by critics among the finest films ever made about World War II.
Known for unflinching realism—the unscripted interviews featured were uncommon in filmmaking until over a decade later—Light followed 75 soldiers suffering from “battle neurosis,” now called Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and chronicled the men and their treatment. Huston wanted to convey that men suffering from PTSD were not failures or cowards, but also “were employable, as trustworthy as anyone.”
In 1946 the Army rejected the film and confiscated the prints, fearing the effects it might have on recruitment. Suppressed since 1946, it was premiered to the public in 1980, and preserved and restored by the National Archives.
POWER OF THE PEN
With a stroke of the pen, the President’s signature gives the force of authority to a law. He can extend voting rights to the disenfranchised or build highways across America.
Throughout our history and all across the government, a signature changes the words on a page from an idea into a reality. Sometimes the signature changes lives for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes, the signature on a page brings unintended consequences.
Recovery and Removal
Two signatures, two outcomes
The “Emergency Fund for the President,” called by different names at different times, is money reserved for a President’s unanticipated needs. The emergency funds have been used under a variety of circumstances that affect national interests such as disasters, security threats, and national defense. In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt used his $100 million “Emergency Fund for the President” to recover, mobilize, and protect the country as it moved from peace to war. As these two records illustrate, with the stroke of a pen, the President can bring welcome relief or implement policies that will drastically disrupt the lives of many.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, shocked and outraged the nation. Congress declared war against Japan the following day. Roosevelt quickly deployed his emergency fund to aid Hawaii and help with its recovery after the attack.
A couple months later, on February 6, 1942, President Roosevelt’s signature allocated more funds for “the removal of enemy aliens…."
“to be expended by the Governor of the Territory of Hawaii in connection with emergencies…in furnishing refuge for evacuees…”
“to be available for the expenditure…for the purpose, in making provision for the removal of enemy aliens….”
Creating a Federal policy of fair employment
On July 26, 1948, President Truman signed Executive Orders 9980 and 9981. The more widely known, EO 9981 desegregated the Armed Forces. Executive Order 9980 was a mandate to integrate the Federal workforce.
At the time, Washington, DC—our nation’s capital—was a segregated city. “Whites only” or “Negroes” signs designated separate lunchrooms, work places, and restrooms. When President Truman entered the White House, only one agency—the Department of the Interior—was integrated.
Frustrated by Congressional inaction and armed with documentation from his Committee on Civil Rights that found discriminatory practices pervaded Federal agencies, President Truman issued the executive order. To give Executive Order 9980 strength and ensure implementation, Truman made the Presidentially-appointed heads of each department or agency responsible. Within a year, eighteen agencies had desegregated, and some agency heads that had not cooperated were removed from their positions.
The Federal workforce was largely segregated until Truman signed EO #9980. These white and black women who were census employees, did the same job but sat in separate offices.
National Archives, Records of the Bureau of the Census
“The head of each department in the executive branch of the Government shall be personally responsible for an effective program to ensure that fair employment policies are fully observed in all personnel actions within his department.” –Executive Order 9980
Overturning the Racial Integrity Act
In June 1958, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, quietly married in Washington, DC. They returned home to Virginia and woke up one morning with policemen in their bedroom. The Lovings were arrested for violating the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
Richard and Mildred were found guilty and sentenced to one year in jail, or they could accept a plea bargain and leave Virginia. So they left. But by 1963, tired of visiting family and friends separately, they sought legal help. Attorneys Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkopf took their case to the Virginia Court of Appeals, where Judge Leon Bazile upheld the lower court’s ruling. The case was sent to the United States Supreme Court.
Dated June 12, 1967, and initialed by Chief Justice of the United States Earl Warren, this page confirms the decision the justices reached—they voted unanimously in favor of the Lovings. The Supreme Court justices ruled Virginia’s law violated the equal protection clause in the 14th amendment.
After the Supreme Court ruling, the Lovings returned to Virginia.
SOMETHING TO SAY
The boys were counting on a miracle, the Hopi tribe petitioned the “Washington Chiefs", and a young Japanese American declares loyalty to the Unites States. These individuals and their stories capture moments in our collective history.
Petitioning the “Washington Chiefs”
“During the last two years strangers have looked over our land with spyglasses and made marks upon it, and we know but little of what this means.” –Hopi petition
Seeking an answer from the Federal government, the entire Hopi tribe in the Arizona Territory petitioned Congress asking that the tribe be given land, rather than allotted to individuals as determined by the Dawes Act. The Hopi farmed communally to survive. The allotment process would sell off “excess” lands, reducing the overall acreage the tribe needed to survive. Also, the Hopi were a matrilineal society, meaning they traced ancestry through the mother. They were fearful that the allotment process would eventually cancel out their way of life. Each pictogram represents a family and the entire tribe signed the petition.
The government never formally responded to the petition, and the Hopi’s lands were never allotted. In an annual report from the Indian commissioner, it was recommended that the Hopis be allowed to continue their custom, “it is believed that the best interests of the tribe would be promoted by granting the petition.”
“Please don’t leave my brother and I without a Mommy and Daddy”
In a letter to President Eisenhower, 10-year-old Michael Rosenberg and 6-year-old Robert Rosenberg pleaded for the lives of their parents, convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, stating, “We love them very much.” Julius and Ethel were U.S. citizens sentenced to death for passing secret information on the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Supporters of the Rosenbergs lobbied for an executive pardon, but it was not granted. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on June 19, 1953. After their parents’ deaths, the Rosenberg children were adopted by Abel and Anne Meeropol.
“I am willing to preserve the principles of democracy and freedom”
In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which ordered the removal of nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans from the west coast. Osama Nakata was incarcerated at Poston Relocation Camp in remote western Arizona, behind barbed wire and watched by armed guards. He was required to fill out a four-page loyalty questionnaire about his relatives, the newspapers and magazines he read, and his ability to read, write, and speak Japanese. This signed statement (right) is his answer to one of the last questions, “Are you willing to serve in the armed forces of the United States on combat duty, wherever ordered?”
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National Archives Museum — National Archives, Washington, DC
With Generous Support from — National Archives Foundation, AT&T, and the Lawrence F. O'Brien Family
Curator — Jennifer N. Johnson