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FAQ: History of Visual Applause for the Deaf   Tags: deaf, faq  

This brief guide offers some history and background on visual applause.
Last Updated: Jul 9, 2014 URL: Print Guide RSS Updates
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Visual applause: Where did it come from?

The ancient Romans had "a set ritual of applause for public performances, expressing degrees of approval: snapping the finger and thumb, clapping with the flat or hollow palm, waving the flap of the toga, for which last the emperor Aurelian substituted a handkerchief (orarium), distributed to all Roman citizens".1 This last item is the earliest record of what is now called the "Chautauqua salute", which consists of waving a handkerchief in the air. However, note that this applause was used by all Romans, not just by or for the deaf.

The waving of handkerchiefs was apparently independently reinvented at several times in several places. It is said that the thunderous applause that came at the end of the 1824 premiere of late-deafened Ludwig van Beethoven's Ninth Symphony not only included a handclapping ovation, but the audience also "stood, they clapped, they stamped their feet, they waved their handkerchiefs".2 There is also a mid-19th century record that an audience waved its handkerchiefs for the late-deafened Czech musical composer Bedrich Smetana.3

And at a 1980 Canadian deaf softball association tournament banquet, a dim hotel banquet room made it difficult to see hands clapping, so people picked up and waved their napkins instead. In 1984, there was a follow-up to the earlier Canadian event when the National Festival of Arts for the Deaf was held in Edmonton, Alberta, and all its participants were issued "clapkerchiefs", specially-printed pieces of light cloth specifically for the purpose of waving applause. One witness reported that several attendees who forgot to bring their clapkerchiefs resorted to waving their hands in the air instead.4

There is an 1892 description of spectators at a Washington, DC baseball field who cheered the exploits of deaf professional baseball player William Ellsworth "Dummy" Hoy by standing up and "wildly waving hats and arms".5 The Chautauqua salute itself first appeared in 1877, when Canadian deaf man Samuel L. Greene attended one of the Chautauqua Assemblies at Fair Point on Chautauqua Lake, New York. He gave three prayer selections in signs and received great handclapping applause for it. The platform superintendent, John H. Vincent, rose and suggested, "Since the speaker cannot hear your applause, take out your handkerchiefs and wave them in appreciation".6 This was done and became popular at other Chautauqua meetings and then spread nationwide, until it was banned around 1914 by public health authorities who feared that the practice might help spread germs at the time that tuberculosis and other diseases were ravaging large parts of the U.S. population.7

Why did the practice of waving handkerchiefs not pick up again later? This is only speculation on my part, but I note that the use of handkerchiefs fell out of use during the 1950s and 1960s. Today, it is rare to find a man or woman, deaf or hearing, who still carries a fabric handkerchief around. If no handkerchief is available, obviously it can't be used for waving. Swishing a small, flimsy Kleenex through the air just isn't the same thing, even if you happen to have one handy.

The modern American Deaf practice of fluttering the hands in the air evidently came to the U.S. from France in late 1985. In a magazine article, Gerald "Bummy" Burstein told of attending the 200th anniversary birthday celebrations for Laurent Clerc in France that November. Just prior to that, he attended the French Deaf people's national convention, and noticed that each presentation ended with "clapping" made by twisting the arms and hands above the heads. Impressed by this display of visual applause - which also followed his own presentation - he told the story the following summer to participants in the 1986 Deaf Youth Leadership Camp in Minnesota. The campers and staff immediately picked up the French deaf applause and continued to use it themselves for the rest of the camp session. It spread throughout Deaf U.S.A. like a virus from there, and became especially prominent during the 1988 Gallaudet "Deaf President Now" protest and the 1989 "Deaf Way" international conference.8

So, when, and by whom, in France did the fluttering-hand applause begin? Ah, there we are stuck for now. I have found nothing in English about this, and even if that information exists somewhere in French, I can't read French. This form of visual applause may possibly date back to the large French "deaf-mute banquets" that began on the anniversary of the abbé de l'Épée's birthday in 1833, and ran annually for many years. Unfortunately, I have found no record of how applause was done at those banquets, so we cannot make that link.


  1. Büttiger, Über das Applaudieren im Theater bei den Alten. Leipzig, 1822. [From, retrieved 9/12/2006].
  2. Marek, George R., Beethoven: Biography of a Genius, New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969, p.594-595.
  3. Lang, Harry, "The 'Chautauqua Salute'", Deaf Life, v.5 no.6, December 1992, p.4.
  4. Carver, Roger J., "Waving Hands: A Canadian Perspective", Deaf Life, v.5 no.4, October 1992, p.6.
  5. "Editor's Note", Deaf Life, v.5 no.6, December 1992, p.4.
  6. Kenner, Marcus, "Ken's Korner", Silent Worker, v.1 no.3, November 1948, p.8.
  7. Lang, op cit.
  8. Burstein, Gerald "Bummy", "The Saga of the Waving Applause", Deaf Life, v.5 no.1, July 1992, p.26-27.

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Prepared by Tom Harrington
Reference and Instruction Librarian
October, 2007

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