In English-speaking countries, 15th – 20th centuries, a unit of length, = 4 inches, by the 18th century used only to measure the height of horses. Abbreviation, hh, (“hands high”). A writer in 1701 refers to “the measure called a handful used in measuring the height of horses, by 27 Henry VIII, Chap. 6, ordained to be 4 inches.”¹ link to table showing relationships between English units of length

Modern studies of the handbreadth of adult American males show a median (50th percentile) width of 3.4 inches at the knuckles, the metacarpal joint, while the breadth at the thumb of male airline pilots was found to be 4.1 inches.² As a body measurement, the hand must have been taken toward the back of the hand.

1. Samuel Leake, 1701,
as quoted in Edward Nicholson.
Men and Measures; a History of Weights and Measures, Ancient and Modern.
London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1912.

2. Wesley E. Woodson, Barry Tillman, and Peggy Tillman.
Human Factors Design Handbook, 2nd ed.
McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1992.

Page 570.


HAND-BREADTH; is three inches.
HANDFUL, is four inches by the Standard.

Worlidge, 1704.


In 17th – 18th century colonial America, hands (always plural) was a unit of capacity, the quantity contained by two hands held together as a scoop. Said to have been influenced by the Dutch geest, “shoe buckle”. This measure was used in trading with the Indians, for example for gunpowder and wampum.


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