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Notaries then and now

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(Originally published in the February 2015 issue of The National Notary.)

Being a Notary today isn't quite what it used to be — and in many ways, that’s a good thing. From major shifts in societal trends and gender demographics, to population explosions and huge technological leaps, to significant changes in state laws and industry regulations, Notaries Public have been there all along, protecting the American public by serving as impartial witnesses for the nation’s most important document transactions.
What was once an appointed and prestigious judicial role has become less understood by the public it serves, but the value of the Notary’s role in society has never been more crucial. While a great many things have changed over the last couple of centuries, you may be surprised at just how much the notarial role has stayed the same.

The role of the colonial Notary

A glimpse back a couple hundred years shows a very different Notary serving the people of colonial America. The 18th century Notary was modeled more closely after their Spanish or French counterparts. Notaries of this age were viewed as the embodiment of the government, and they were appointed the same way as judges, though their role was more ministerial than judicial, according to a 1980 article in The National Notary magazine entitled “Ye Olde Notary Duties,” by Charles N. Faerber, the NNA’s Vice President of Notary Affairs.
Common notarial tasks for colonial Notaries included protests, which at the time verified financial documents called bills of exchange that were similar to modern bank checks and were transferable from one person to another. These bills of exchange were critical to maritime trade in an era before the international banking system was established, and could represent commodities as well as money. While protests have been largely replaced by more modern banking techniques, the Notary’s role as an impartial, third-party witness for important transactions is still an essential element of the modern notarial role.
A lesser known responsibility of colonial Notaries, who always were men, was to detail lurid personal information about local residents within their official journals. Despite the prudishness of the era, it wasn’t unusual for a Notary’s journal to contain illicit stories of cheating spouses, bastard children and other untoward activities committed by the townspeople. Today, the modern Notary’s official journal is reserved strictly for transactional data.
Notary stamp and journal

A Matter of Identification: How times have changed

Imagine a time before the internet, before smartphones — before phones, for that matter. Unlike our technological age, throughout most of history (and well into the 1900s), it wasn’t unusual for people to live their entire lives within a 50-mile radius of where they were born. Many people never even left their home towns. This made identifying signers quite easy. They were Notaries’ neighbors, their tailors, their market keepers. Everyone knew each other. Today, many of us don’t even know our next door neighbors, let alone the rest of our city’s citizens. And in the global workplace with all of its myriad technological advances, it’s not uncommon to never meet face-to-face with our colleagues or bosses, much less personally know the average customer or client in need of a notarization. Unlike their colonial counterparts, modern Notaries are called upon to exercise due diligence each and every time they identify signers. That often means seeing an approved form of identification and recording its information in an official journal. But this wasn’t always the case.
As recently as 1982, a California appellate court attempted to enforce a law requiring all Notaries to either personally know their signers, or know someone who personally knew the signer in order to perform a notarization, according to Faerber. This ruling, as you may imagine, threw a major bottleneck into the notarization process, and basically caused commerce to come to a screeching halt. Imagine if you were required to know each and every signer for whom you performed notarizations. Is it even conceivable today?
To remedy the problem, an emergency law had to be passed in order to allow California Notaries to use ID cards to identify signers. Today, more than a dozen states list and describe specific allowable forms of identification as part of their Notary statues, and Notaries are often trained to detect fraud. This illustrates that while the Notary’s main responsibility — to protect the public from fraud — hasn’t changed, the means by which to do so has.

The gender shift

One of the most notable shifts made to the role of the Notary Public in the U.S. is the shift from male to female dominance. Consider that in early Colonial times, the Notary office was inaccessible to women.
“Women were generally disqualified from holding public office under Britain’s common law, which was also the law of its colonies,” wrote Deborah M. Thaw, NNA Vice Chair, in a 1998 essay in The John Marshall Law Review entitled “The Feminization Of The Office Of Notary Public: From Femme Covert To Notaire Covert.” By modern standards, Thaw noted, the relationship between men and women in England and other 18th century European colonial nations was akin to that of oppressor and oppressed. This was a time when common law prohibited married women from owning property. Any material items she owned became property of her husband.
Today, women dominate in the notarial role. In fact, by 1998, women outnumbered men in the role of Notary Public by a ratio of three or four to one. In 2012, females comprised 72 percent of all U.S. Notaries. Throughout much of the 1800s, state courts and legislatures debated whether to allow women to be Notaries. Little progress was made until the populations of major cities exploded as a result of immigration and industrialization. This increased the demand for Notaries. In 1859, just prior to the Civil War, for example, New York City was limited by law to 500 Notaries.
By 1882, that number had jumped to 2,710 plus one per bank. In 1905, limits were abolished.“The convenience to customers and employers of having an ‘in-house’ Notary in banks and corporations stoked the urban demand for Notaries,” Thaw wrote. “By the mid twentieth century, some large U.S. cities had more Notaries than entire European nations.”
Today, there are approximately 4.4 million Notaries in the U.S. This opened up the office to a much broader cross-section of the American population. The office also evolved into focusing its duties on serving as an impartial, third-party witness. The “democratization” of the American Notary office paved the way for the “feminization” of the office.
But women didn’t suddenly decide they wanted to become Notaries. Rather, they gravitated more than men to positions for which a Notary commission is often required, including legal secretary, paralegal, administrative assistant, escrow secretary and shorthand reporter, Thaw wrote.

Becoming a Notary

Getting appointed as a Notary also has changed drastically. In the 1800s, Notary appointments followed the European model. In many cases, counties were granted a specific number of Notary “allotments” based on population.
In California, for example, an 1853 law limited the number of Notaries the government could appoint to 480 — for the entire Golden State. In many states, a Notary applicant had to be endorsed or recommended by a local legislator or judge.
Nowadays, any individual who meets their state’s requirements can apply for, train (if required), and become commissioned as a Notary. They can even do it all online, if they prefer. However, in recent years, the Notary community has been significantly impacted by new consumer protection laws and federal regulations. Because your essential role is to guard against fraud and protect consumers’ important financial and personal transactions, society expects you to carry out your notarial duties honestly and properly.
While society has changed drastically over the centuries, and laws continue to evolve to meet the needs of the industry, the Notary Public still serves a role as essential today as it was 300 years ago.

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Add your comment


26 Oct 2015

In California when an employer pay for your notary commission can they regulate whether you can do notary service on your off business hours?

National Notary Association

27 Oct 2015

Hello. Notaries may enter into an agreement with a private employer who has paid their commissioning fees and for their supplies, whereby the Notary’s services are limited “solely to transactions directly associated with the business purposes of the employer” (GC 8202.8). However, such an agreement is optional, not mandatory.

Mister J

26 Oct 2015

“By the mid twentieth century, some large U.S. cities had more Notaries than entire European nations.” Yes, but it must be said that the role and requirements of notaries in European countries is much different than those of Notaries Public in the US.

02 Nov 2015

Great info! Great article!

Jerry Lucas

02 Nov 2015

Readers interested in notary history will find many interesting articles on my Colorado Notary Blog. Read the story about Colonial Notary Aspinwall in Boston, who notarized documents for several Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. Aspinwall's notary records have survived, while most other colonial notary records have been lost.

Vilma Merle Steele

10 Nov 2015

Great refresher article!


17 Nov 2015

Enjoyed reading this article

Barbara Norkus

29 Mar 2021

My ggf William Bell Davidson was a Notary Public in Haskell County, Indian Territory. Would there still be documents of his application to be a NP? For genealogical reasons I would love to know as he is my brick wall. If there is an historian at your organization, I would love to hear from them please.

National Notary Association

31 Mar 2021

Hello Barbara. We're sorry, we would not have any records or information at the NNA going that far back, but it sounds like a very interesting story! We would suggest possibly contacting a historical society or the vital records office in that area to see if they might have any records available from that time period.

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