J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, May 04, 2020

A Few Paragraphs on the Paraph

Yesterday I learned a word:

It means the fancy squiggle that people like John Hancock added to their formal signatures, as shown above from a replica of the Declaration of Independence.

Originally an additional guard against forgery, the paraph got its name in the late sixteenth century. I don’t see many people using the term in the late eighteenth century. They still signed with paraphs, though, but those squiggles were mostly decorative. Not that they didn’t have a function—good handwriting was a sign of gentility, and a graceful paraph showed even firmer upper-class status.

Which helps to explain why in 1766 Dr. Thomas Young, who didn’t have the benefits of a formal education and probably felt that keenly, was signing his letters with a most elaborate paraph. (He calmed down by the early 1770s, when his signature became more republican.)

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