Hand marks of residents of Loon op Zand.
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Hand marks and signatures

We all love old photographs, do we not? Especially the really old ones that show generations of our family that we never met. They give us an idea about our ancestors: what did they look like? The photographs connect us with those relatives from the past. But what if you do not have photographs of your ancestors? Maybe because they did not have the money to hire a photographer. Or maybe because they lived in eras when photography did not exist yet and painted portraits were only common for the very rich families. Have you ever thought that their signature or hand mark is probably the most intimate or personal item you can get from them?

Why are signatures important?

I already gave one significant answer to that question. Signatures or hand marks were placed personally by your ancestor, that maybe lived a couple of hundred years ago. Closer than this you cannot get to your ancient relatives. It is more an emotional or psychological aspect of why we should embrace hand marks and signatures.

petition with signatures of inhabitants of Tilburg, 1801
petition with signatures of inhabitants of Tilburg, 1801 (photo credits: Regional Archives Tilburg)

Hand marks or signatures are also valuable as a methodology tool. Here are a few examples.

Social status

Signatures say something about our ancestors’ social status. If a person from the 18th century was able to write his or her name, that person must have had a least a few writing classes. If they attended school, they probably could afford it. They or their family members had a job or a position that required them to be able to write. At least their name. Not always does a hand mark say the opposite. It does not always suggest that the person was illiterate. I have seen records where one of the parties placed a hand mark, because blindness prevented them from writing a full name. A short comment like that in a record provides us with valuable information about our ancestors. How many other records would you find that state this person was blind?

Identity

Have you ever thought of using signatures as a tool to prove or disprove someone’s identity? This is extremely helpful when you are facing brick walls when several persons with identical names lived in the same area in the same period of time. You could compare the signatures or hand marks to see if a record belongs to person A or to person B. Maybe person A was able to write and person B was illiterate. In that case you might put all the records with a signature on one pile and those with ‘only’ a hand mark on a second pile. If you take the time to scrutinise the records, you may found out who was who or who was where in a specific place or time period.

Variants

Not every scribe was good at writing! Sometimes they wrote what they heard, or at least what they thought they heard. This means that certain names – especially those who were or sounded as a ‘foreign’ name – were spelled in many ways. If you have ten different spellings, then how do you know which one is correct? Well, try to find out which variant the person used himself!

trade marks and signatures of bakers in Tilburg, 18th century
trade marks and signatures of bakers in Tilburg, end of the 18th century (photo credits: Regional Archives Tilburg)

Did you know that specific trades required an unique mark, so that everybody was certain who produced for example the bread? If you find a mark like that, you also find out what trade your ancestor had!

Some of our ancestors were very creative. They used all kinds of curls and pen strokes to illuminate their signature or hand mark. In some cases it almost looks like a piece of art! Enjoy these little handcrafts, but do not forget to use them as a source or as a research tool too!

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