Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery

Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures

Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures

An exhibition at the National Archives, Washington, DC
March 21, 2014 through January 5, 2015

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. For example, the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence simultaneously committed the brave act of treason against King George III and created a new nation.

Well-known signatures are found throughout the records of the National Archives. Equally important are the multitude of marks by people unknown to history. The documents signed by these individuals represent fascinating stories to be discovered. 

Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” features original signatures from our nationwide holdings.  From developing a signature style to signing groundbreaking policy into law, they illustrate the many ways people have “made their mark” on history.


photo Legislation allowing electronic signatures to formalize a contract, or using the autopen to authenticate a law is leading us further away from personalized marks, symbolized by John Hancock’s famous and distinctive signature.

Senate “credentials” for Tristam Dalton, signed by John Hancock, February 10, 1789
National Archives, Records of the U.S. Senate


photo This patent for a shoe that allows the “wearer to lean forwardly beyond his center of gravity” was created by pop star Michael Jackson and two other designers so that he could perform one of his signature moves on stage.

Patent #5,255,452, submitted by Michael Jackson, October 26, 1993
National Archives, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office


photo 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.

Michelle Obama’s dress
National Archives, Courtesy of the Presidential Materials Division


photo Dorothea Lange believed that her role as a photographer was to promote political and social change by documenting compelling scenes, as in this signed, vintage print of jobless men lined up to claim unemployment benefits.

Signed, vintage print of men claiming unemployment benefits
National Archives, Records of the Social Security Administration


Preview the Exhibit: “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures”

This exhibition was created by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC, with support from the Foundation for the National Archives with the generous support of Lead Sponsor AT&T. Major additional support provided by the Lawrence F. O'Brien Family and members of the Board of the Foundation for the National Archives.