The fall and rise of lefties in Victorian England

Left-handers were less common in Victorian EnglandAbout 11% of the British population is currently left-handed. But that wasn’t always the case. Among people born in 1900, the proportion of lefties was just 3%.

Chris McManus and Alex Hartigan from University College London worked this out with the help of old films made at the turn of the 19th century and recently restored. The films, which show people moving in and out of Victorian factories, paint an evocative picture of a time gone by. By noting which hand the people in the film waved in, the duo were able to work out the proportions of left-handers alive at the time.

I interviewed McManus last week about his study, London and his writing as my first proper freelance writing assignment. He had lots to say and said it very well. Have a look at the full interview at Nature Networks.

More on asymmetry:

Asymmetrical brains help us (and fish) to multi-task

Reference: McManus & Hartigan. 2007. Declining left-handedness in Victorian England seen in the films of Mitchell and Kenyon. Curr Biol 17: R793-R794.

6 Responses

  1. This was a cool piece. He seems like a very interesting personality. Death drawing class? *shudders* I guess.. dissected forms could be… nope. Can’t grasp it.

    Was he right about you being right handed?

    My brther’s a southpaw, and even as recently as 25 years ago he had a teacher who tried to make him write with his right hand.

  2. Yep, I’m a ginuwine rightie. Shame about your brother – it just goes to show that left-handers still face massive social stigmas, and often in indirect ways. McManus said to me (and I think I had to cut this) that it’s impossible to find a digital camera built for left-handers – they all have the button on the right.

  3. Great post. I like the image of people long-gone waving to the camera. But as a southpaw myself, it makes me self-conscious of waving with my right hand. I do it, I think, sometimes. So the filmmakers might think I was right-handed, yeah?

  4. Good point – they accounted for that. They have lots of modern data on the proportion of people who are left-handed writers and those who are left-handed wavers. They used the relationship between those figures to calibrate the Victorian data.

    Honestly, the original interview I did was about twice as long as what’s here. Chris spoke for a good 45 minutes and most of it was gold.

  5. Do you remember if there was any difference between the number of right-handed people who occasionally wave with their left and lefties who sometimes wave with their right?

    I mean, as they are dominant in different hemispheres, there could be different proclivities, yeah?

  6. I don’t know for sure but this is an educated guess: the number of left-handers who wave with their right would be greater. The brains of left-handers aren’t just mirror versions of those of right-handers. For lack of a better word, they’re a bit ‘messier’. Some mental abilites aren’t as clearly segregated between hemispheres as they normally are.

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