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X mark on certificates doesn't always mean illiterate

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X mark on certificates doesn't always mean illiterate

Postby Chrisnearcolerne » Sun Jul 28, 2019 11:40 am

I read in the mag recently (I think!) that a mark of X on a certificate doesn't always mean that person was illiterate but now, wanting to give a friend the details it gave, I cannot find it again. I've searched the forum, Googled various combinations of describing it and looked through magazines, but cannot find anything. Just wondered if anyone has the details of where and when it was please!
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Re: X mark on certificates doesn't always mean illiterate

Postby Guy » Mon Jul 29, 2019 3:54 am

It is a common misconception that people who sign with their mark are illiterate but to what extent is difficult to prove.
Many trades and occupations in the past required the worker to add their mark to their work this could be an X or it could be some other mark. A piece-worker was paid by the number of pieces completed and this was done using his/her mark.
Masons often added their mark to their work as did many other trades (think of mouse-man furniture).
Some of these people used their marks on official documents such as census.
In other cases we can come across earlier and/or later documents signed rather than marked and in some cases signed documents before and after the marked event proving literacy.
I remember an incident back in the 1960s when at school preparing for a week at an RAF based we boys had to sign the Official Secrets Act, the sergeant dishing out the forms ordered us to put our marks on the paper and many did just that put a cross on the form rather than signing their name, I should mention all well educated and literate. A few added their X as a joke but most who made a mark did so as they were used to obeying commands without question.

This unquestioning obedience has also been used to explain earlier cases of people using a mark when they could sign, including servants who did not want to appear educated above their station, brides or grooms not wanting to embarrass their partner who was illiterate and similar situations.

I should also mention that a signature did not mean a person was literate as some people could sign their name but could not read or write.

Cheers
Guy
As we have gained from the past, we owe the future a debt, which we pay by sharing today.
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Re: X mark on certificates doesn't always mean illiterate

Postby Seth Burgess » Mon Jul 29, 2019 6:54 am

Hi Chris. Thanks for your post. Alan Crosby discussed writing with a quill pen in his Off The Record column in our June issue, and as a result literacy and illiteracy were discussed in our Letters pages in the July and Summer issues.

Seth Burgess
Production editor
Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine
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Re: X mark on certificates doesn't always mean illiterate

Postby Chrisnearcolerne » Mon Jul 29, 2019 10:43 am

Many thanks Guy and Seth for your replies, great stuff, appreciated. BW, Chris
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Re: X mark on certificates doesn't always mean illiterate

Postby KayFarndon » Fri Aug 02, 2019 12:56 pm

I just wanted to add to the discussion about making your mark with an 'x'. On my husband's tree one of his 2x great grandmothers was married twice. She signed her name on her first marriage, but her second marriage was to a man almost ten years younger than she was. It took me a while to realise what a canny lady she was, as her second husband was probably illiterate and she did not want to undermine him, so made her mark with an 'x'!

My own great grandmother also made her mark when she registered the birth of my grandfather in May 1872. However, she registered the birth of her first grand child in 1899 in a beautiful hand and I assumed that when my grandfather had gone to school that he came home and taught his mother how to write, which was often the case.

I was of this opinion for almost 15 years, until I sent for the marriage certificate of one of her brothers, only to find she had been a witness four months later in September 1872 and although the writing was shaky and she had spelt one of her Christian names incorrectly, it was her name in her hand and not a mark. My assumption is that she realised she would be the only person unable to write, so had practised writing her own name and from there learnt to read and write.
So beware, there can be many reasons why it is a mark and not a handwritten name.
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Re: X mark on certificates doesn't always mean illiterate

Postby ksouthall » Sat Aug 03, 2019 9:45 pm

KayFarndon wrote:...My assumption is that she realised she would be the only person unable to write, so had practised writing her own name and from there learnt to read and write.


Just to add that, just because someone could sign their name, that doesn't mean they could necessarily read or write. In some cases, they may have practised their signature to mask their illiteracy.
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