Who Invented the Sign-Up Sheet?

September 24th, 2014

I love history, so I’m always interested in all kinds of historic facts.

The quirky historical trivia is always fun.  You know, things like who invented the zipper or how did people keep their socks up or their underwear from falling down before elastic was invented?

With yet another school year starting, I’ve come up with another one.

Who exactly invented the sign-up sheet?

I’d love to know who came up with the idea of publicly shaming people into doing something they might otherwise loathe by sending around a sheet of paper and asking each person to publicly declare whether or not they’re willing to do a little extra work or spend a little extra money.

It’s particularly bad when the list goes around for something that makes you look especially bad if you don’t sign up.

For example, try avoiding adding your name to a list titled “Help the Poor and Downtrodden.”  You think you could just pass the sheet along as it came by because after all you really are “too busy” to help, but then you’re faced with your neighbor on one side who just signed up and your neighbor on your other side eagerly waiting for you to hand her the sheet.  Face it, you’re going to look like a real schmuck if you just pass the list along without adding your name.

Even the most mundane things seem bigger when the dreaded sign-up sheet is passed along.

“Food for the First Grade Christmas Party” sheet is going to look awfully bad if you don’t add your name to it. That’s because you know that all the parents before you and all the ones after you are going to quickly peruse the list before signing up themselves, not just to figure out what other items might be needed but also to determine if your kid is going to be the one freeloading off the hot chocolate and peppermint sticks the other parents bring.

So when did this little coercive ploy begin?

It’s one of those mysteries even Google can’t answer (I know—I looked it up).

We can only speculate. Many historic curiosities originate in time of war.  For example, during the Civil War a certain general named Joseph Hooker found that his troops had lots of female followers with certain skills. In his “honor” women with similar “talents” bear his name to this day.

So did the dreaded sign-up sheet originate in wartime?  While possible, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

For instance, take the old military practice of standing in a line and shooting at the enemy.  Everyone now knows that standing in the front row was a pretty bad idea unless you had a fairly certain death wish. Of course, no one knew that for sure until the first shots were fired and as a general rule in other events in life the front row is usually the place to see and be seen.

Could it be that some wily old British general gathered the troops one day and said, “All those wishing to stand on the front row for the next battle please sign this sheet of paper” and without thinking everyone grabbed their quills and inkwells and started running for the front of the line, and the general concluded that this was a really great idea.

Honestly, I doubt we’ll ever really know. It will be one of life’s mysteries.  Soon it will also be an historic artifact itself as the old sign-up sheet slowly gives way to the modern online sign-up sheet where the only people who know you’re shirking any obligations are the ambitious people who bother to log on themselves.