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The War of the Hands

With the ongoing battle regarding handedness – it might be wise to put the issue at rest with right hand usage privy from the history books -

For most of recorded history, the right hand has been the favoured hand, chosen for important public acts! The still important handshake is among the most prominent still today. Throughout history an extended and opened right hand showed that the person intended no harm, since the right hand was the hand that held the sword. The same goes for eating “ …we do accustome our children to take meate with the ryght hand, & if they put forthe the lefte hande, we anone (at once) correct them” (verbatim from Plutarch (1533).

Similarly all gentle gestures and mannerisms related to deportment throughout history would be seen as tasteful and respectful if indicated with the right hand only “… principle gestures are to be made with the right arm” (Putnam, 1533).

Most especially, the right was then the obvious hand for writing (seeing as a status thing for the educated few), a practice increasingly required of all children with the expansion of formal schooling and literacy.

In the event of the Industrial Revolution and the mass production of machines and tools, sewing machines, lathes, winches, vises and the like were only designed to be operated with the right hand. As for writing the left-handed person could follow custom and use the right or stay with the left hand and suffer the consequences: an ink-stained hand from being dragged through drying ink, a desk with inkwell on the right, and beatings from teachers. Some teachers even bound the left hand to prevent its use (Smith, 1903). By the mid-19th century fewer than 5% of adults were estimated to write with the left hand.

Some early scientists, however, among them Paul Broca (1865) and William Ogle (1871), recognised that left-handers, especially those with strong left hand tendencies, still used their left for what Broca called untrained, “spontaneously-performed” acts, such as lifting and carrying weights, throwing a ball or stone, striking with the fists, and waving a stick!

So the question remains: would more people be left-handed if it had not been for this social pressure throughout history?

Plutarch (1533): The education or bringing up of children / Translated Oute of Plutarche. Translation by Thomas Elyot. London: Thomas Berthelet. University Microfilms No 20057

Putnam, W. 1856: The science and art of elocution and oratory. New York and Auburn: Miller, Orton & Mullingan

Smith, W.H. 1903: Concerning a certain minority. School and Home Education, 22(7), 328 – 330.

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