On Shaking Hands (1820)

Posted on September 20, 2013 by


In my research, I encounter various pieces that, though they might fall outside the scope of my work, merit attention. One of those items which I found worthy appeared (as an early 19th century re-post, if you will, from the Boston Daily Advertiser) in the September 27, 1820 issue of the Farmer’s Repository.

The upper portion of the piece as it appeared in the Farmers' Depository.

The upper portion of the piece as it appeared in the Farmers’ Depository.

In part, I think my interests in this is that it appears the editor of the Charles Town, Virginia newspaper found interest enough in it to place it on front page (perhaps in the hope of evoking similar reactions from his readers).

Mr. Editor – There are a few things of more common occurrence than shaking hands; and yet I do not recollect that much has been speculated upon the subject. I confess when I consider to what unimportant and future concerns the attention of writers and readers has been directed, I am surprised that no one has been found to handle so important a subject as this; and attempt to give the public a rational view of the doctrine and discipline of shaking hands. It is a subject on which I have myself theorized a good deal, and I beg leave to offer you a few remarks on the origin of the practice, and the various forms in which it is exercised.

I have been unable to find in the ancient writers, any distinct mention of shaking hands. – They followed the heartier practice of hugging or embracing, which has not wholly disappeared among grown persons in Europe, and children in our own country, and has unquestionably the advantage on the score of cordiality. When the ancients trusted the business of salutation to the hands alone, they joined but did not shake them; and although I find frequently such phrases as jungere dextras hospito; I do not recollect to have met with that of agitare dextras. I am inclined to think that the practice grew up in the ages of chivalry, when the cumbrous iron mail, in which the knights were cased, prevented their embracing, and when with fingers clothed in steel, the simple touch or joining of the hands would have been but cold welcome; so that a prolonged junction was a natural resort, to express cordiality; and as it would have been awkward to keep the hands unemployed in this position, a gentle agitation or shaking might have been naturally introduced. How long the practice may have remained in this incipient stage, it is impossible, in the silence of history, to say; nor is there any thing in the Chronicles de Comines, or the Byzantine historians, which enables us to trace the progress of the art, into the forms in which it now exists among us.

Without, therefore, availing myself of the privilege of theorists to supply by conjecture the absence of history or tradition, I shall pass immediately to the enumeration of those forms: –

1 The pump handle shake is the first which deserves notice. It is executed by taking your friend’s hand, and working it up and down, through an arc of fifty degrees, for about a minute and a half. TO have its nature, force and character, this shake should be performed with a fair steady motion, No attempt should be made to give it grace, and still less vivacity; as the few instances, in which the latter has been tried, have uniformly resulted in dislocating the shoulder of the person, on whim it has been attempted. On the contrary, persons, who are partial to the pump handle shake, should beat some pains to give an equable, tranquil movement to the operation, which should on no account be continued, after perspiration on the part of your friend has commenced.

2 The Pendulum shake may be mentioned next, as being a somewhat similar in character, but moving, as the name indicates in a horizontal, instead of perpendicular direction. It is executed by sweeping your hand horizontally towards your friend’s, and after the junction is effected, rowing with it, from one side to the other according to the pleasure of the parties – The only caution in its use which needs particularly be given, is not to insist on performing it in a plane, strictly parallel to the horizon, when you meet with a person who has been educated to the pump handle shake. It is well known that people cling to the forms, in which they have been educated, even when the substance is sacrificed in adhering to them. I had two uncles, both estimable men, one of whom had been brought up in the pump handle shake, and another had brought home the pendulum, from a foreign voyage. – They met, joined hands, and attempted to put them in motion. They were neither of them feeble men. One endeavored to pump, and the other to paddle; their faces reddened; the drops stood on their foreheads; and it was at last a pleasing illustration of the doctrine of the composition of forces, to see their hands slanting into an exact diagonal; in which line they ever after shook; but it was plain to see, there was no cordiality in it; and as is usually the case with compromises, both parties were discontented.

3d. The tourniquet shake is the next in importance. It derives its name from the instrument made use of by surgeons, to stop the circulation of the blood, in a limb about to be amputated. It is performed by clasping the hand of your friend, as far as you can in your own, and then contracting the muscles of your thumb, fingers, and palm, till you have induced any degree of compression you may propose, in the hand of your friend. Particular care ought to be taken, if your own hand is as hard and as big as a frying pan, and that of your friend as small and soft as a young maiden’s, not to make use of the tourniquet shake to the degree that will force the small bones of the wrist out of place. It is also seldom sage to apply it to gouty persons. A hearty young friend of mine, who had pursued the study of Geology, and acquired an unusual hardness and strength of hand and wrist, by the use of the hammer, on returning from a scientific excursion, gave his gouty uncle the tourniquet shake, wit, such severity, as reduced the old gentleman’s fingers to powder; for which my friend had the pleasure of being disinherited, as soon as his uncle’s fingers got well enough to hold a pen.

4th The cordial grapple is a shake of some interest. It is a hearty boisterous agitation of your friend’s hand accompanied with moderate pressure, and loud, cheerful exclamations of welcome. It is an excellent travelling shake, and well adapted to make friends. It is indiscriminately performed.

5th The Peter Grievous touch is opposed to the cordial grapple. It is a pensive, tranquil junction, followed by a mild subsultory motion, a cast down look, and an inarticulate inquiry after your friend’s health.

6th. The prude major and prude minor are nearly monopolized by ladies. They cannot be accurately described, but are constantly to be noticed in practice. They never extend beyond the fingers; and the prude major allows you to touch them only down to the 2d joint. The prude minor gives you the whole of the fore finger. Considerable skill may be shown in performing these, with nice variations, such as extending the left hand, instead of the right, or stretching a new glossy kid glove over the finger you extend.

I might go through with a long list, sir, of the grip royal, the saw mill shake, and the shake with malice prepense; but they are only factitious combinations of the three fundamental forms already described, as the pump handle, the pendulum and the tourniquet; as the loving pat, the reach romantic, and the sentimental clasp, may be reduced in their main movements to various combinations and modification of the cordial grapple, Peter Grievous touch and the prude major and minor. I should trouble you with a few remarks in conclusion, on the mode of shaking hands as an indication of characters, but as I see a friend coming up the avenue who is addicted to the pump handle, I dare not tire my wrist by further writing.

Your humble servant.

Saugus, Sept. 12, 1820

P.S. When shall we see you, Mr. Hale, along us; I long to take your hand. You need not fear me; make use of the Peter Grievous touch, almost exclusively.

Note the reference to the days of knights… a little Sir Walter Scott influence, perhaps? Maybe… or just coincidental.

This engraving of Edward Everett (by R.M. Staigg) from 1850, probably gives us a better idea of what Everett looked like at the time he penned this piece on shaking hands.

This engraving of Edward Everett (by R.M. Staigg) from 1850, probably gives us a better idea of what Everett looked like at the time he penned this piece on shaking hands.

The more interesting sidebar to this is that “Silas Shakewell” was actually, a young(er)… Edward Everett.

Yes, THAT Edward Everett.

Of course, at this time, Everett was the editor of the North American Review… and this was forty-three years before he joined Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, under more somber circumstances. Yet, I can’t help but wonder… did Everett evaluate Lincoln’s handshake under the criteria of his theory of 1820? Probably not, but…

It’s always enjoyable to see the lighter side of folks from the early 19th century… people who more often appear to have been so serious.