The evolution of signatures: From wax seal to eSignatures

Posted by Sam Crook on 11-Dec-2015 07:12:42

Important documents are signed all the time: wills, contracts, government documents, the list is endless. The person’s signature identifies the signer, but also authorises the document by proving that they agreed to the terms stated.

Ensuring that the signature is legitimate and untampered with is vital, and that’s why signatures have evolved over time with the digital transformation of business. In this blog, we detail the signature's evolution – from 1215 to today.


The evolution of the signature

Signatures are extremely powerful items, which is why we have chosen to discuss some of history’s most significant documents and how they were signed:

Magna Carta – 1215

The traditional view of the signature, with ink and paper, is not how it has always been. One of England’s most important documents, the Magna Carta, was ‘signed’ with the King’s seal, as was typical of the time. 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘to sign’ is: “To put a seal upon (a letter or document) as a means of identification or authentication; to stamp with a seal or signet”.

Seals were commonly used to authenticate documents and to prevent forgery of legal papers.

Shakespeare’s Signature – 1612

Despite being one of the most well-known figures in history, little is known of William Shakespeare. Only six of the great bard’s signatures have survived, with each spelling his name differently and none spelling it ‘Shakespeare’ as is done today.

As there were no copyright laws in Elizabethan times, plays went through numerous edits and editions, some authorised and some unauthorised. Errors often crept in during the printing process. The plays we are familiar with will likely be quite different from the original versions Shakespeare wrote.

American Declaration of Independence – 1776

The United States of America celebrates Independence Day on the 4th of July, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed.

In fact, wasn’t actually signed on this date. This is the day Congress adopted the declaration. The signing happened over several weeks, with many of the delegates signing later, most likely because it was difficult to get all 56 delegates together in one place. Maybe they could have benefited from SigningHub!

The Beatles Contract with Manager Brian Epstein – 1962

Signed just before the release of their first single ‘Love Me Do’, the contract between The Beatles and their manager Brian Epstein signifies the beginning of the band’s success.

The contract recently sold for £365,000 at auction. As Sotheby’s specialist in English Literacy and Manuscripts, Dr Gabriel Heaton, stated: “Without this contract, and the relationship it represents, it seems inconceivable that the Beatles could have achieved all that they did."

The significance of a signature

A signature is worth much more than the paper it is written on. It signifies an agreement between two parties. In business, a contract starts a relationship and is an important document to begin working together.

Signatures and their significance have evolved over the centuries. It is surprising that with all the technological advances, it is still common practice to sign with a pen.

Despite this, digital signatures are steadily being adopted and offer many benefits over the traditional ink signature:

  • Documents can be securely signed by multiple parties regardless of where they are in the world at that point in time - reducing postage and travel costs, sign-off time and reducing each individual's carbon footprint.
  • They provide greater security and, when combined with strong user authentication, can significantly reduce the risk of fraud and strengthen compliance with standards.
  • Embedded trusted timestamps show when a document was signed and prove the document hasn’t been altered since it was signed – maybe Shakespeare could have benefited from this.

For business users, you can add flexibility, a streamlined workflow, high trust, strong encryption and lowered costs to the list of benefits.

Discover more about the differences in digital signatures.

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