Casts of Hands a Christmas Fad: 1896

Sculpture. Cast of the right hand of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847). Hand resting on an oval base. In glass topped case with tortoiseshell frame. Plaster, cast, height, plaster, 6.5, cm, width, plaster, 14 cm, length, plaster, 24 cm, before 1903. 18th-early 19th century. English.

Christmas Fad Among Eastern Women.

A novelty which will take the place of the framed photograph or other personal gift as a Christmas remembrance for intimate friends and admirers, is a plaster cast which is an exact reproduction of the hand of the giver. Such a gift from his sweetheart would certainly be highly prized by the fond lover, for though the clasp of this image of the real is, as it were, but second-hand, it is at least a reminder of blissful first hand pressures of the past.

This new fad, however, has more than a merely romantic interest. The admirers of clever politicians, eloquent preachers and successful writers are vying with one another for the possession of facsimiles of the hands of their favorites. Casts of the hand of President-elect McKinley are very much in demand, and Mr. Bryan still stretches out his hand in effigy over the heads of his admirers.

Alabaster hand with rose. Former eBay listing.

The casts are by no means the same thing as those lily white affairs of marble which were popular among prominent actresses a few years ago, and which the sculptor was instructed to make as smooth and beautiful as possible. Even when the original hand was beautiful, the sculptor’s art failed to give an exact portrayal of all its points. Beauty and symmetry were there, and they were fair to look upon, but the little lines that mean so much, were absent. It was as if a cast had been made of a gloved hand.

To make a reproduction which will be an exact likeness, including imperfections as well as points of beauty, it is necessary that the hand be used as a mold upon which the plaster is actually cast. Then the slightest mark—even a scratch—will be faithfully repeated in the paste that tells no tales but true ones.
This idea was conceived by an interesting young woman of New York, who looks upon the newly inaugurated custom, not as a fad, but as an educational practice calculated to hold up to public view the frailties, as well as the virtues of our public men and women.

She has already secured facsimiles of the hands of Chauncey M. Depew, ex-Speaker Crisp, Banker Henry Clews and Rev. T. DeWitt Talmadge, besides those of prominent politicians, and is now at work upon the hands of distinguished literary personages.

The hands are, she says, in a very large degree, the index of the will and other mental faculties. They reveal the temperament and the traits of character as readily as the face, to one who can master them, although the latter is popularly supposed to be the leading expression of character. She contends that the hand being connected with the moto-center of the will, is an executor of the will and must bear the expression of the nerve thoughts; whereas the eye, lip and other features formerly relied upon for the reading of character are made by her subordinate to the hand.

When asked to put in her own words the story of this new fad, she said: “The modeling of the hand is not altogether a new idea. It has long been a beautiful custom in England and France to take the cast of the first born. The cast was reserved until the marriage of the child, when it was presented as a wedding gift and saved as a sort of heirloom to be handed down from generation to generation. That was a mere matter of sentiment, but later the scientific value of such casts has become known, and it is upon those lines that I am working.”

“It is similar then to palmistry?”

“By no means. The hand is the key to the soul. A beautiful hand by no means indicates the possession of a beautiful or ideal character. This cast which you see on the table is delicate with smooth, tightly drawn skin, tapering fingers, narrow finger nails, symmetrically formed and thin in the palm. A beautiful hand, you say, but let me tell you the characteristics portrayed. She is fickle, loveless, willful, usually has her own way, and will tease until she tires a person out to get what she wants, and she is very likely to discard it. No regard for the welfare, or the desires and pleasures of others bothers her. The tightly drawn skin shows a lack of sensitiveness and the straight thumb, with no upward curve, shows a lack of generosity. She is not domestic, and altogether there is little of worth in that hand. The slender, tapering fingers which are very thin at the end and have narrow nails, indicate that she will never stick long to any one person or object. She is lazy or indolent, at least; is selfish, and will easily develop consumption.

1. Henry Clews 2. Chauncey Depew 3. Horace Greely 4. Rev. T. De Witt Talmage

“The hand of Chauncey M. Depew, as you see by this cast,” she continued, holding up for the writer’s inspection a large, strong-looking hand, “with its stout wrist, outwardly curved thumb, thick and hollow palm, long, strong fingers, broad nails and with loose skin on the back is very strong. He is not curious, but very energetic. Domestic and fond of his family, he is very affectionate, as shown by the thick, hollow palm. The thumb and the loose skin show a remarkable generosity. Though not averse to fame he is very sensitive, and a mean criticism will hurt him deeply. He is extremely quick of perception and decides instantaneously. While he is irritated by trifles, he bears great matters with perfect calmness. The long, strong fingers show remarkable energy and activity of thought. His hand indicates a total lack of selfishness and I think he would do his utmost to assist a worthy person or cause. The pose in which the hand is taken is perfectly natural and as much is own as the color of his eyes. He will not die suddenly, but just wear out. The outward course of the thumb also indicates a quality which I might term unreserved.

“The cast of Henry Clews’ hand is not open like Dr. Depew’s, but closed with the forefinger extended. Dr. Depew gives what he has freely, but Mr. Clews, as the hand pose indicates will keep what he has to himself. Mr. Clews’ hand shows great business ability, secretiveness in a sense and a strong will. The hand of the late ex-Speaker Crisp cast a short time before his death while in Washington, was blue in tint, showing that he would succumb to a sudden stroke, probably of heart failure brought about by undue excitement. The fingers are rather short and fat, indicating the shortness of his body. The palms are thick, the wrist strong, and it is altogether a good hand.

“This short, fat hand, which is the fac-simile of that of a popular actress is usually accompanied by a double chin. The possessor of such a hand is jolly and good tempered, and holds decided opinions, which she is not averse to stating, regardless of her hearers.”

Many bachelor quarters in New York now contain such casts of hands, and also of feet showing the ankle, doing duty as paper weights. The left hand is usually chosen, as it is generally more perfectly formed.

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 6 December 1896: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil has previously mentioned the “summer fad,” of young ladies casting their faces in plaster to give as souvenirs to their beaux, some of whom, Mrs Daffodil grieves to say, had whole galleries of plaster beauties on the walls of their bachelor quarters. She does not imagine that plaster hands given as Christmas presents will be any more reverently received and imagines the careless gentleman stubbing out his cigarettes in the upturned, flower-like plaster hand of the Loved One.

It is curious how plaster casting, normally thought of in the context of the drawing class, was transformed into a method of character reading, although the interesting young woman’s subjects were so well-known that she certainly had enough information on their personalities to draw conclusions without recourse to plaster hands.

A few years earlier, it was the foot that was used for character analysis.

The newest fad taken up by the ladies in New York is character reading from the feet. There are regular foot reading women, who make a livelihood out of their strange calling. The proper way is to have a plaster cast taken of the foot, and sent to the chiropodist who writes out the character. Nelson [NZ] Evening Mail, 29 March 1890: p. 2

Then we have the young gentlemen of Paris (the plasterers of Paris?) who found a practical use for their plastered figures:

The superchic young men in Paris (according to an imaginative correspondent), not content with mere boot lasts, have plaster casts made of their legs from the waist down, with the object of keeping both their trousers, their knee-breeches, and even their under-wear in proper shape. One youth, with more money than brains, has an entire room of his residence devoted to the reception of some sixty pairs of plaster-of-Paris counterparts of his legs, and nothing is more peculiar than the spectacle presented by this army of fully clothed limbs standing about without any trunk and head. The Argonaut [San Francisco CA] 10 July 1893

Mrs Daffodil rather shudders to think what a character reader would make of those Parisian plasters.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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