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What’s behind the multiple pens at signing ceremonies?

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

It’s a classic political photo-op: A leader uses multiple pens to sign a key piece of legislation or historic executive order. Last week, for example, Mayor Martin J. Walsh followed the obscure tradition by using several pens to ink his John Hancock on Boston’s $3.15 billion budget for the next fiscal year.

Where does this quirky ritual come from?

It dates at least to the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The idea is that presidents, governors, and mayors reward supporters of the measures with mementos — often engraved — to acknowledge their efforts to gain passage.

The tradition gained wider attention when President Lyndon Johnson used 75 pens to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy received six, apparently to reward high-ranking Justice Department officials who had worked for the measure’s passage. Martin Luther King Jr. also received a pen.


When President Gerald Ford signed the pardon for President Nixon, he used only one pen to sign the formal document.

George W. Bush did not follow the tradition. He used only one pen to sign all legislation.

President Barack Obama used 22 pens to sign the Affordable Care Act into law in 2010.

To ensure the pens are actually used, presidents employ various methods. Obama used a different pen for each letter or half letter of his name. John F. Kennedy was known to keep the ink flowing by signing his middle name. (His official pen holder would accommodate only 36 pens.)

A bit about the writing instruments themselves. President Trump is maintaining the long-standing supplier for the official White House pen. Trump uses a Century II black lacquer and gold roller ball pen, made by manufacturer A. T. Cross. Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were also known to use Cross pens.


Sources: JFK Presidential Library and Museum; Time Magazine; and NPR

Roy Greene can be reached at roy.greene@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @roygreene.