Put ‘Er There! The History of the Handshake

It’s how we greet each other.  It’s how we start and end a business meeting.  It’s how we end an argument.  It’s a mutual sign of goodwill and peace.  It can establish a first impression with someone—whether it be good or bad.  It can convey good sportsmanship.

What are we talking about? The handshake.


Around the world, there’s a diversity of how we greet one another. Here are some examples:

  • In New Zealand, Maori touch noses as a greeting
  • In Ethiopia, men touch shoulders
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, male friends touch foreheads

In America, the common greeting gesture is the handshake. The handshake is a gesture that is a shorthand way of sending a message without the need for words. And there’s actually a history of the handshake—that gesture we are all-too familiar with and may not think too much about.

But how did this gripping of hands begin? Let’s explore.

The History of the Handshake

The exact origins of the handshake are somewhat murky, but there are definitely many theories out there. Here are some of them:

  • The handshake dates back as far as Ancient Greece. A marble sculpture from circa 375-350 BC illustrates two men shaking hands.
  • In van der Helst’s painting, The Celebration of the Peace of Munster, 18 June 1648, Captain Witsen is shown shaking hands in a gesture of friendship with his lieutenant.
  • There are handshakes depicted between man and wife in numerous 17th-century marriage portraits. The gesture sealed a scared and legally binding commitment in the wedding ceremony.
  • There are some sources who say the history of the handshake stems from the transfer of power from a god to a king. For instance, in ancient Babylonia, the ruler would clasp hands with the statue of a god, signifying this divine power exchange.
  • According to History, the handshake was a way of conveying peaceful intentions. When strangers extended their empty hands, it showed that they weren’t holding weapons and bore no ill will towards the other. It’s even suggested that the up-and-down motion of the handshake was to dislodge any daggers or knives that might be hidden up a sleeve.
  • The poet Homer described a handshake several times in his “Iliad” and “Odyssey”. He referred to handshakes most often as displays of trust or pledges.
  • Gravestones during the fourth and fifth century B.C. would often depict the deceased person shaking hands with a member of their family. This would signify either a final goodbye or the eternal bond between the living and the dead.
  • 17th century Quakers viewed a handshake as a better alternative to tipping a hat or bowing.
  • The Egyptian hieroglyphic of an extended hand represents the verb ‘to give’.
  • Some researchers suggest that the handshake may have been introduced to the Western world by Sir Walter Raleigh, in service with the British Court during the late 16th century.

For more history of the handshake, we love this infographic from Daily Infographic.  

Check out these two crazy facts about handshaking from My Heritage:

  • Joseph Lazarow, Mayor of Atlantic City, New Jersey, was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for a July 1977 publicity stunt, in which he shook more than 11,000 hands in a single day.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt had previously held the record with 8,513 handshakes at a White House reception on January 1, 1907.
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