Well-preserved signed documents, family records, photos and other artifacts provide a fascinating window onto the past, both in the here-and-now present and for future generations to come.
In 2014 the National Archives showcased a rich collection of signatures of notable leaders and figures from U.S. history. The 10-month exhibit entitled “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures,” included the signatures of famous individuals such as abolitionist Harriet Tubman, singer and cultural icon Frank Sinatra, the notorious Saddam Hussein and, of course, John Hancock. While your own collection of autographs, signatures or family letters may not include individuals of such historic stature, archivally preserving signed artifacts is still something everyone should consider.
preserving signed, archivally preserving currancy
Continuing with the space exploration theme illustrated above, while a signed envelope or first day postal cover may not be tremendously unusual, some signed artifacts are indeed just that. This is a $2 bill signed by all three Apollo 17 (December 7-19, 1972) astronauts: Gene Cernan, Harrison Schmidt and Ron Evans. Note the torn corner in the upper left. This was purposefully done to “let the bad luck out” of this $2 bill before the beginning of the flight.
The exhibition at the National Archives featured more than 100 diverse signatures, including those of many world leaders as well as entertainers such as Michael Jackson. Delaware Online reported that there was even a basketball signed by the entire Duke University men’s basketball team that won the 2001 NCAA championship.
Not all of the signatures in the exhibition were from famous figures, however. One such item on display was a card that was sent to President Dwight Eisenhower by 10-year-old Michael Rosenberg. The child’s parents—Julius and Ethel Rosenberg—were due to be executed for espionage and treason for their role in passing classified nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1940s-1950s. In his letter young Michael Rosenberg pleaded with the President to spare his parents’ lives, but the request was ultimately unsuccessful and the Rosenbergs were executed in June of 1953 during the height of the “Red Scare” that was sweeping the country.
preserving signed, storing letters
Signed letters, hand-written in cursive, from a family archive. Each is archivally stored in a crystal clear bag and has a similarly-sized sheet of 2-ply acid-free mat board added as a backing for stiffness and structural support. These clear bags allow one to handle and view important letters without damaging them or transferring naturally-occurring finger oils to these irreplaceable family artifacts. (Please click on image for more information.)
Not Just Names on Paper
One reason for such a specific exhibit at the National Archives is that the “art of the signature” is slowly disappearing in the digital age. Not only is cursive writing no longer taught in many schools these days, signatures can now be added digitally to contracts and other documents, which detracts from their uniqueness and their ability to tell a story. Nearly every American knows about John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence, but no one thinks twice about the signatures potentially missing from important present-day documents, such as controversial bills currently being signed into law.
“As a historian, I think it’s sad, but I think it’s inevitable,” Jennifer Johnson, chief curator of the exhibit, told Delaware Online. “I do think we’re losing a little bit of uniqueness.”
preserving signed, signed baseball photos
A signed vintage photograph of a company (Boeing aircraft) baseball team, c.1955.
Preserving Signed Documents in Your Own Collection
Whether you’ve spent a lifetime collecting signatures of politicians, astronauts, musicians or your favorite sports heroes—or you just want to save your grandparents’ letters to the family to someday show them to your own grandkids—the right archival products and practices can help you protect and preserve these items for years to come. Consider these basic guidelines:
White cotton inspection gloves.
(Please click on image for more information.)
Start with Clean Hands
Always wash your hands before handling signed items in your collection. Regular soap and water should do the trick when it comes to removing dirt, lotions, and the naturally-occurring oils on hands and fingers. As a second line of defense, consider wearing white cotton inspection gloves to further protect your signed artifacts from damaging dirt and oils.
preserving signed, first day covers preserving signed, first day covers
Acid-free open-end envelopes and 3-ring print pages are ideal for preserving signed letters, documents and collectibles.
(Please click on images for more information.)