Do You Know What Your President Signed?

Printed sigature of John F. Kennedy on a White House response card
An autopenned signature of Richard Nixon
Printed sigature of Ronald and Nanlcy Reagan on a White House response card
Etched signature of George W. Bush on a 9/11 commemorative paperweight
Authentic signature of Richard Nixon as vice president
Stamped signatures of Lyndon Johnson and Huber Humphrey on congressional passes

Gold leaf printed signature of Gerald R. Ford on Marine One tumbler
Printed signatures of Bill and Hillary Clinton on 1993 White House Christmas card

The President of the United States is a very busy person. Their entire day is mostly meetings with staff, with constituencies, with groups, with the media, with government officials, with ambassadors, with other heads of state, along with ceremonies, bill signings, speeches, travel…whew. Who would want the job. Yet, many do.

It stands to reason, then, that there really isn’t enough time in the day to sign everything. There are the official items to sign such as official legislation, general state correspondence, official appointments and so much more. Then there are the other items such as photos, christmas cards, requests, individual letters, and so on. It was estimated that the president received some 25,000 pieces of direct mail every day. One person just can’t do it all and needs help.

To do that, there are several different approaches the White House uses to provide relief to the president when it comes to the use of the signature.

First, is the use of the printed signature. On many items that is answered over and over again, a card is created that features the presidential signature under a particular sentiment. These are sent out for birthdays (80 and over only), anniversaries (50 and over only), new births, graduations, and so forth.

Second, is the use of an autopen. This is a device that uses a pre-recorded signature that mimics the actual signature when a pen or market is inserted. However, on close inspection you can tell that the signature is rather flat and overly precise. The autopen is used for appointments, cards, letters, and other relatively important items where a presidential signature would be normally used, but the volume would be too taxing.

Third, is a secretarial signature. Any busy executive has a staff member who can mimic the signature of the boss almost exactly. The president is no different. Many times, the signature of the staff person is so identical to that of the president that it is really hard to tell the difference between the staff member’s and the president’s. It is common knowledge that John F. Kennedy, for example, rarely signed his own correspondence almost his entire public life, instead relying on staff and the autopen to do the work.

A fourth type of presidential signature is the engraved signature. This one is printed, but like a raised business card, you can feel the signature on the card or letter similar to raised printing.

A presidential signature is also at times etched into glass or a special commemorative gift as well.

It is not surprising then, that so many items that are perported to be a presidential signature is really just a variant of one of the above. Someone who has spent a lot of time examining presidential correspondence and individual signatures can actually help determine just what kind of signature is represented.

Here is a very quick guide to presidential signatures. If you receive a fundraising letter bearing the president’s signature, it is printed. If you receive a christmas card, the signature is printed. If you receive a letter or card from the White House in response to a letter you originally sent, the signature is printed. Many appointments, except those with direct responsibility to the president, are autopenned. Most photographs with a sentiment that is calligraphied, the signature is autopenned. If the photo’s sentiment appears handwritten, the signature is probably original as well. Any business card from the White House has a printed signature.

The final rule of thumb on presidential signatures is: if the item was not signed by the president in your presence, see above.

All the best in your pursuit of the official presidential signature.

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