In the 18th century, left-handed people were often stated as being caudge-pawed, which was a variation of caw-pawed, meaning clumsy or awkward. They are most commonly referred to now as Southpaws, and I’m proud to be one of them.
We lefties make up about 12 percent of the world’s population. Just 12 percent! And it was just a few short decades ago most children were discouraged from using their left hands and forced to use their right. This practice was common in the 18th century, so the population of left-handed people in the world was definitely lower. In The Art of Nursing: or, the Method of Bringing Up Young Children According to the Rules of Physick for the Preservation of Health, and Prolonging Life, caregivers are told to make children use their right hands. “When he is grown a little, that is to say, about the second or third Month, he may be allow’d the use of his Hands, but so that his Left-Hand may always be less at Liberty than his Right; for fear, left by using it too often, it should grow stronger, and more easy for him to use than his Right, and so he should become Left-handed.”
Another statistic shows about 30 percent of the world’s population is mixed-handed, meaning they can do different things with different hands. This is different from ambidextrous, which means they can do everything equally with both hands. Do you fit in with that? Personally, I do the majority of things with my left hand, but I do bat, play golf, and use a field hockey stick with my right hand (I throw and play tennis left-handed). It’s like a right-handed baseball player who bats left-handed, just reversed for me. I don’t think that makes me mixed-handed, because I have to use both hands in order to bat or golf.
Some of you will remember when I went through Militia training and how hard it was for me to get the drills right in the beginning. I wanted to do everything with my left hand and backwards, and it made for awkward and admittedly sometimes frustrating moments. I know this was the case for my fellow Southpaws in the 18th century. My sergeant Seth told me there were several men on the awkward squad for some time. Guns were nearly always made for right-handed people. Gunsmith Eric von Aschwege told me left-handed guns were rare, but they do show up from time to time. He said they were more common in Europe, where if you had enough money, you could have one specially made for you. He even restored a German left-handed pistol! “Yes, in military drill they make everyone fire right-handed so you can line up and fire a volley efficiently, Eric added. “That said, a left handed individual can still fire a right handed gun. Just because the lock is on the right side doesn’t mean you can’t shoot it. The flash goes up and to the side, not back; that’s no different from shooting a double barrel flintlock shotgun.” Ah-ha! So it’s doable.
Fun fact from Eric: “Even more difficult is to be a right-handed shooter who is left-eye dominant, or vise versa. You occasionally see European guns with an offset stock to accommodate someone shooting with their dominant eye.”
Centuries ago, slave owners would take out ads in the Virginia Gazette right here in Williamsburg in hopes of capturing a runaway slave. These advertisements would contain information about the man or woman, such as his or her height and stature, and items they were believed to have taken with them. If they favored their left hand, that was also mentioned. I imagine that would be such an abnormality in the 18th century that it would be necessary to list among the person’s attributes, as if they had a limp or a missing finger. One of those slave owners was Thomas Jefferson, whose ad in September of 1769 said:
“RUN away from the subscriber in Albemarle, a Mulatto slave called Sandy, about 35 years of age, his stature is rather low, inclining to corpulence, and his complexion light; he is a shoemaker by trade, in which he uses his left hand principally, can do coarse carpenters work, and is something of a horse jockey; he is greatly addicted to drink, and when drunk is insolent and disorderly, in his conversation he swears much, and in his behaviour is artful and knavish. He took with him a white horse, much scarred with traces, of which it is expected he will endeavour to dispose; he also carried his shoemakers tools, and will probably endeavour to get employment that way. Whoever conveys the said slave to me, in Albemarle, shall have 40 s. reward, if taken up within the county, 4 l. if elsewhere within the colony, and 10 l. if in any other colony, from THOMAS JEFFERSON.”
Robert Hunnicutt, Jr. also printed an ad in May of 1772 in search of a man named Derby:
“RUN away from the Subscriber, a Negro Man named DERBY, about twenty five Years of Age, near six Feet high, a slim black Fellow, and plays on the Fiddle with his left Hand, which he took with him; he had on, when he went away, a Virginia Cloth Jacket, an Osnabrug Shirt, and a Pair of blue Broadcloth Breeches. I have some Reason to think he will make for Pittsylvania as his Wife has been lately sent there to one of Mr. John Baird’s Quarters. Whoever brings him to me, or secures him so that I may get him again, shall have THREE POUNDS Reward if he is taken within fifty Miles, and EIGHT POUNDS if above that Distance. ROBERT HUNNICUTT, Junior.”
Slaveowners ran these types of ads throughout the entire colony of Virginia.
I’ll leave you with one more printed piece, this time by Benjamin Franklin. It’s aptly titled “A Petition of the Left Hand” and I think it’s a champion for us southpaws.
A Petition of the Left Hand
by Benjamin Franklin
To Those Who Have the Superintendency of Education
I address myself to all the friends of youth, and conjure them to direct their compassionate regards to my unhappy fate, in order to remove the prejudices of which I am the victim. There are twin sisters of us; and the two eyes of man do not more resemble, nor are capable of being upon better terms with each other, than my sister and myself, were it not for the partiality of our parents, who make the most injurious distinctions between us. From my infancy, I have been led to consider my sister as a being of a more elevated rank. I was suffered to grow up without the least instruction, while nothing was spared in her education. She had masters to teach her writing, drawing, music, and other accomplishments; but if by chance I touched a pencil, a pen, or a needle, I was bitterly rebuked; and more than once I have been beaten for being awkward, and wanting a graceful manner. It is true, my sister associated me with her upon some occasions; but she always made a point of taking the lead, calling upon me only from necessity, or to figure by her side.
But conceive not, sirs, that my complaints are instigated merely by vanity. No; my uneasiness is occasioned by an object much more serious. It is the practice in our family, that the whole business of providing for its subsistence falls upon my sister and myself. If any indisposition should attack my sister–and I mention it in confidence upon this occasion, that she is subject to the gout, the rheumatism, and cramp, without making mention of other accidents–what would be the fate of our poor family? Must not the regret of our parents be excessive, at having placed so great a difference between sisters who are so perfectly equal? Alas! we must perish from distress; for it would not be in my power even to scrawl a suppliant petition for relief, having been obliged to employ the hand of another in transcribing the request which I have now the honor to prefer to you.
Condescend, sirs, to make my parents sensible of the injustice of an exclusive tenderness, and of the necessity of distributing their care and affection among all their children equally.
I am, with a profound respect, Sirs, your most obedient servant,
The Left Hand
Who’s your favorite lefty?
A huge thank you to Colonial Williamsburg Historian Cathy Hellier for her help!