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MONTHLY BLOG 46, THE HISTORY OF THE HAND-SHAKE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

Not everyone shakes hands. But those who do are expressing an egalitarian relationship. As a form of greeting, the handshake differs completely in meaning from the bow or curtsey, which display deference from the ‘lowly’ to those on ‘high’. In one Jane Austen novel, a fearlessly ‘modern’ young woman extends her hand to a young man at a crowded party. Of course, it is Marianne Dashwood, the embodiment of ‘sensibility’. She has just re-encountered the errant Willoughly, long after he has ended their unofficial courtship. Marianne immediately holds out her hand, claiming him as an intimate friend. But he avoids her gesture. Marianne then exclaims ‘in a voice of the greatest emotion: “Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? … Will you not shake hands with me?”’. He cannot avoid doing so, but drops her hand quickly. After a few short exchanges, Willoughby then leaves ‘with a slight bow’.2  He has dropped her. Their body language says it all.

There is a particular poignancy in this scene. In this era, men and women who were not related to one another would not ordinarily touch hands as a form of greeting. But, of course, lovers might do so. No wonder that a mere touch was so powerful when it was so rare. (And it retains its appeal today in romantic mythology and countless pop songs: I Wanna hold your Hand!)3  Shakespeare, as ever, had known the scene. Romeo understands the intimacy implied when he takes Juliet’s hand in a dance, as does she: ‘And palm to palm is like holy palmer’s kiss’.4

Even more definitively, a couple would touch hands in a marriage ceremony (even allowing for the many varieties of ritual associated with weddings).5 The wording was clear. ‘Taking someone’s hand in marriage’ is an ultimate symbol of good faith, along with the exchange of rings which remain visible on the hand. These are public signs of personal commitment. An earlier poetic expression also offered an endgame variant, in the form of a final handshake. Michael Dayton’s Sonnet LXI (1594) which starts ‘Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part’ invites the parting lovers to: ‘shake hands for ever, cancel all our vows’.

At the same time, a close handshake also has a set of commercial connotations. When two traders agree upon a contract, they may indicate the same by a handshake. However unequal they may be in wealth and commercial status, for the purposes of the deal they are equals, both pledging to fulfil the bargain. It constitutes a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ – upheld by personal honour. The same etiquette applies in making a bet.

Hence reneging upon a wager or deal sealed with a personal handshake is viewed as particularly heinous. The loser may even litigate for redress. Today the American Sports World News reports rumours that Charles Wang, the majority owner of the New York Islanders ice-hockey team, is being sued for $10 million by hedge-fund manager Andrew Barroway. Wang’s crime? He had allegedly reneged on a handshake pact to sell his Islanders franchise to Barroway.6
Typically, a handshake is a brief and routine affair, usually but not invariably with the right hand. True, there are variants. The prolonged handshake plus a clasp of the recipient’s upper arm by the shaker’s other hand is a gesture of special warmth – stereotypically undertaken by gregarious American politicians.7

Or there is the Masonic handshake. It gives a secret signal, allowing members of a separate society to identify one another. Apparently, there are many variants of the Masonic handshake, denoting differences in rank within the organisation. That information is rather depressing, since the handshake is, in principle, egalitarian. Nonetheless, it shows the potential for stylistic variation, from the firm muscular grip to the fleeting touch-and-drop.

Variations in styles of shaking hands are here caricatured as two gentlemen are almost dancing their mutual greetings; from www.etiquipedia.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10, consulted 11 Oct. 2014. Gradually, routine British styles of greeting began to incorporate the handshake. It was most common among civilian men of similar middle-class standing. By contrast, the toffs stuck with their traditional bowing and curtseying. Meanwhile, hand-shaking was rare among workers in ‘dirty’ trades and industries, because people in unavoidably grimy jobs usually tried to contain rather than to spread the dirt. The emblem of two clasped hands nonetheless appeared proudly on various trade union banners, as a pledge of solidarity.

The advent of the social handshake was thus not uniform across all periods and classes. But it could be found, between close male friends, in Britain from at least Shakespeare’s time. Yet its subsequent spread has taken a long time a-coming. For example, in 1828 the anonymous author of A Critique of the Follies and Vices of the Age was still expressing displeasure at the new popularity of the handshake, including between men and women.8

One reason for some snobbish hostility, among polite society in Britain, was the association of this custom with the republican USA, where its usage became increasingly common after American independence. There were also connotations of support for the hand-shaking citizens of republican France from 1793 onwards. English visitors to the USA like the novelist and social commentator Frances Trollope thus waxed somewhat critical of the local mores. In 1832, she deplored the habit of hand-shaking between both sexes and all classes (albeit excluding the non-free).For her, this form of greeting was too bodily intimate, especially as ‘the near approach of the gentleman [ironically] was always redolent of whiskey and tobacco’.9

Ultimately, however, the snobs were routed. Old-style bowing and curtseying has generally disappeared, although hat wearers may still doff their hats to ladies. However, the twentieth century also produced another twist in the tale. Just as the hand-shake was becoming quite widely adopted in Britain by the 1970s, it was suddenly challenged by a new custom, imported from overseas. It is the continental kiss, in the form of a light clasp of the upper arms and a peck on the cheek (or, for the physically fastidious, an air-kiss). Such a manoeuvre would give good scope to a later Marianne Dashwood, who might grip an errant Willoughby in order to kiss him warmly. Nonetheless, be warned: whatever the greeting style, body language always provides ways of signalling the rejection as well as the offering of friendship.

1  See P.J. Corfield, previous monthly BLOG 45 ‘Doffing One’s Hat’. And for fuller discussion, see PJC, ‘Dress for Deference & Dissent: Hats and the Decline of Hat Honour’, Costume: Journal of the Costume Society, 23 (1989), pp. 64-79; also transl. in K.Gerteis (ed.), Zum Wandel von Zeremoniell und Gesellschaftsritualen: Aufklärung, 6 (1991), pp. 5-18; and posted on PJC personal website as Pdf/8.

2  J. Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1st pub. London, 1811): chapter 28.

3 The Beatles (1963).

4  W. Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (written mid 1590s; 1597), Act 1, sc. 5. A palmer was a successful pilgrim, returning from the Holy Land bearing palms as a sign that the journey had been achieved.

5  A traditional ritual of ‘hand-fasting’, announcing a solemn public engagement, has also been updated for use today in pagan marriage ceremonies.

6 Sports World News on-line 12.Aug. 2014, at www.sportsworldnews.com/articles, consulted 11 Oct. 2014.

7  See e.g. John Travolta’s film portrayal of a notably touchy-feely American presidential candidate, based upon Bill Clinton, in Primary Colors (dir. Mike Nichols, 1998).

8  Anon., Something New on Men and Manners: A Critique of the Follies and Vices of the Age … (Hailsham, Sussex, 1828), p. 174.

F. Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), ed. R. Mullen (Oxford, 1984), p. 83.

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MONTHLY BLOG 45, DOFFING ONE’S HAT

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

TV’s Pride and Prejudice (1995) provided many memorable images, not least Colin Firth as Mr Darcy diving into a pool to emerge reborn as a feeling, empathetic human being. This transformation gains extra impact when contrasted with the intense formality of his general deportment. When, after some months of absence, Darcy and Bingley re-enter the Bennet family home at Longbourn, they bow deeply in unison, whilst Mrs Bennet and all her daughters rise as one and bend their heads in synchronised response. Audiences may well sigh, admiringly or critically according to taste. What a contrast with our own casual manners. It satisfies a sense that the past must have been different – like a ‘foreign country’, in a much-cited phrase from L.P. Hartley.1

But did people in Georgian polite society actually greet each other like that on a day-to-day basis? There is good evidence for the required formality (and dullness) of Hanoverian court life on ceremonial occasions. A fashionable ball or high society dinner might also require exceptional courtesies. But ordinary life, even among the elite of Britain’s landed aristocrats and commercial plutocrats, was not lived strictly according to the etiquette books.

Instead, the eighteenth century saw an attenuation of the lavish old-style formalities, which were known as ‘hat honour’. In theory, men when meeting their social superiors made a deep bow, removing their headgear, with a visible flourish. Gentlemen greeting a ‘lady’ would also remove their hats with a courteous nod. For women, the comparable requirement was the low curtsey from the ‘inferior’ to the ‘superior’. Those who held their heads highest (and hatted in the case of men) the more socially elevated, since lowering the head always signalled deference. This understanding underpins the custom of addressing monarchs as ‘Your Highness’.

Illustration 1 ‘The Hopes of the Family’ (1799) shows a young man being interviewed for University admission. A don presides, wearing his mortar board, whilst the nervous applicant and his eager father, an old-fashioned country gentleman, have both doffed their hats, which they carry under their arms. An undergraduate in his gown looks on nonchalantly, his hands in pockets. Yet he too remains bare-headed in the presence of a senior member of his College. Only the applicant’s mother, who is subject to the different rules of etiquette for women, covers her head with a rustic bonnet.

V0040710 A school master is sitting at a table pointing at some books

Illus 1: A gentle satire by Henry William Bunbury, entitled

The Hopes of the Family (1799) – © The Welcome Library.

In accordance with this etiquette, King Charles I on trial before Parliament in 1648 wore a high black hat throughout the proceedings. It was a signal that, as the head of state, he would not uncover for any lower authority. The answer of his republican opponents was radical. Charles I was found guilty of warfare against his own people, as a ‘tyrant, traitor and murderer’. He was decapitated, beheading the old power structure very literally and publicly.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, there was some return to the old formalities. (Or at least hopes of the same). For example, in October 1661 the naval official and MP Samuel Pepys recorded his displeasure at what he considered to be the undue pride of his manservant, who kept his hat on in the house.2 Pepys expected deference from his ‘inferiors’, whilst being ready to accord it to his own ‘superiors’. But it was not always easy to judge. In July 1663, Pepys worried that he may have offended the Duke of York, by not uncovering when the two men were walking in sight of each other in St James’s Park.3 It was a tricky decision. Failure, to doff one’s hat, when close at hand, would be rude, yet uncovering from too far away would seem merely servile.

Over the very long term, however, all these formalities began to attenuate. With the advent of brick buildings and roaring coal-fires, the habitual wearing of hats indoors generally disappeared – mob-caps and night-caps excepted. And in public, the old gestures continued but in an attenuated form. With commercial growth came the advent of many people of middling status. It was hard for them to calculate the precise gradations of status between one individual and another. The old-style mannerisms were also too slow for a fast-moving and urbanising world.

As a result, between men the deep bow began to change into a nod of the head. The elaborate flourish of the hat gradually turned into a quick lifting or pulling. And the respectful long tug of the forelock, on the part of those too poor to have any headgear, turned into a briefer touch to the head.4

A notable example of the abbreviation of hat honour was the codification of the military salute. It was impractical for rank-and-file soldiers to remove their headgear whenever encountering their officers. On the other hand, military discipline required the respecting of ranks. The answer was a symbolic gesture. ‘Inferiors’ greeted their ‘superiors’ by touching the hand to the head. Different regiments evolved their own traditions. Only in 1917 (well into World War I) did the British army decide that all salutes should be given right-handedly.

Meanwhile, the female greeting in the form of a low curtsey, holding out the dress, also evolved into a briefer bob or half-curtsey. It was expected from all lower-status women when meeting ‘superiors’. But hat honour was confined to men. On public occasions, women retained their hats, bonnets and feathers. Even in church, they did not copy men in baring their heads but respected St Paul’s Biblical dictum that it was not ‘comely’ for women to pray to God uncovered.5

These etiquette rules delight TV- and film-makers. In reality, however, the conventions were always in evolution. Rules were broken and/or fudged, as well as followed. Moreover, by the later eighteenth-century in Britain a new form of interpersonal greeting had arrived. It was the egalitarian hand-shake. Jane Austen’s characters not only bowed and curtsied to each other. They also, in certain circumstances, shook hands. In one Austen novel, a fearlessly ‘modern’ young woman extends her hand to shake that of a young man at a public assembly. Anyone know the reference? Answer follows in next month’s BLOG on Handshaking.

1 L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1943, p. 1: ‘the past is a foreign country – they do things differently there’.

2 R. Latham and W. Matthews (eds), The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. II: 1661 (1970), p 199.

3 Ibid., Vol. IV: 1663 (1971), p. 252.

4 P.J. Corfield, ‘Dress for Deference & Dissent: Hats and the Decline of Hat Honour’, Costume: Journal of the Costume Society, 23 (1989), pp. 64-79; also transl. in K.Gerteis (ed.), Zum Wandel von Zeremoniell und Gesellschaftsritualen: Aufklärung, 6 (1991), pp. 5-18. Also posted on PJC personal website as Pdf/8.

5 Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians, 11:13.

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