I just learned a new word. I had never heard the word “paraph” before, and I can pretty much guarantee that you have never heard it either.

So what is a paraph?

It is “a flourish at the end of a signature,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary people. It was added to a signature to prevent forgery. A signature might be imitated, but the additional flourish made it that much harder to fake. Each writer would devise his (or her, but it was mostly his) own paraph.

You are probably familiar with John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence.

That squiggle under his name, crossed by two short vertical lines, is his paraph. Most of the rest of the signers didn’t use one on the Declaration, maybe because Hancock hadn’t left them enough room. But Benjamin Franklin included his. You can see how it differs from Hancock’s.

George Washington’s paraph is more modest, almost none existent — just a simple curved line under the “g.” But note the distinctive way he crosses his “t.”

Men were consistent with their paraphs. It wasn’t just any old squiggle. They were identical as much as any signature is, and some could be quite elaborate. Johann August Sutter, being a European gentleman, went in for quite the fancy paraph.

This is from a document concerning a financial transaction, where it would be important to have a verifiable signature. But even in a routine letter to John Bidwell about sheep and cattle, he signed with his personal flourish. Those two dots separated by a double stroke of the pen show up every time.

John Bidwell had his own paraph as well. He didn’t always use it, but the more important the letter, the bigger the signature and paraph. It features the diamond shape more or less under the center, and the curlicue tail at the end.

So now you know — that’s a paraph!

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Paraph

  1. Karen Marie Kitterman says:

    Excellent!  Thank you!  Really cool information!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s