Why Historical Figures Always Had One Hand in Their Jackets

It's Greek to me!

President Franklin Pierce. by Matthew Brady, 1850s.Everett Historical/Shutterstock

If you peruse portraits and photographs of notable men from the 18th and 19th centuries, you might notice that many of them sport the same fairly unnatural-looking pose. They sit or stand while keeping one hand tucked into the front of their jackets. They look like they’re trying to appear stately for the picture while also trying to keep the painter from pick-pocketing their wallet. With depictions of everyone from Napoleon to Joseph Stalin using the gesture, historians and curious art aficionados have puzzled over its meaning. Get a look at some rarely seen historical photos you won’t find in textbooks.

No, it’s not a secret Masonic code or a reference to an Illuminati ritual. The tradition actually dates back long before the 1700s. According to Today I Found Out, some societal circles in ancient Greece considered it disrespectful to speak with your hands outside of your clothing.  Statuary from the sixth century BC, therefore, showed celebrated orators such as Solon with their hands tucked into their cloaks.

Little did the ancient Greeks know that their legacy would carry on a whopping 24 centuries later. In the 18th century, artists began looking to antiquity for inspiration. What did they find but statues of celebrated speakers, posed with their hands in their cloaks. Portraitists began representing subjects in a similar pose, believing that it conveyed a noble, calm comportment and good breeding.

One of the most recognizable historical figures to be depicted in this pose was Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Several portraits of the French emperor show him with one hand in his jacket, leading theorists to wonder if he was clutching a painful stomach ulcer. One painter, Thomas Hudson, painted so many men in this pose that his contemporaries wondered if he simply wasn’t good at painting hands.

With the advent of photography in the early 19th century, the trend continued. Major historical figures—everyone from U.S. president Franklin Pierce to Communist Manifesto author Karl Marx—were photographed with unbuttoned jackets and hidden hands. It wasn’t until the end of the 1800s that the pose’s prevalence began to decline. But, even after that, it popped up in photographs every now and then; Joseph Stalin adopted the stance in a 1948 photo. Next, see if you can identify these historical figures from only one image.

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Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.