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From the Key Reporter, Volume XLV, Number Four, Summer 1980


Phi Beta Kappa keys were $5, $6, and $7 in an advertisement that appeared in volume I, issue 1 of the Key Reporter in the winter of 1936. The lead article asked the reader to "shake hands" with the 75,000 other Phi Beta Kappa members (we now number approximately 300,000 {in 1980, ed}) through the Key Reporter and gave the history and instructions for the grip for those whose memories of their initiation ceremonies had dimmed.

Several unauthorized and probably erroneous early descriptions of the grip existed. The best-preserved of these was published by Avery Allyn, an antimasonic agitator, who in 1831 wrote a book "containing 'A Key to the Phi Beta Kappa' with a purported illustration of the grip [below]. He wrote: 'The sign is given by placing two forefingers of the right hand so as to cover the left corner of the mouth; draw them across the chin. The grip is like the common shaking of hands only not interlocking the thumbs; and at the same time gently pressing the wrist'".

The grip in general use today [top] is the one that was described in the first Key Reporter as follows: "Each member grasps with the little and ring fingers and the thumb of the right hand the first two fingers of the other member's right hand. When the hands come together with the fingers spread by twos, thus enabling them to straddle each other before mutually closing on the first two fingers, this handclasp will be found an amazingly facile and fraternal way to shake a PBK hand, although hands are now shaken officially only when members are initiated, and sometimes not even then.".

At first there was some confusion about where the first official illustration of the grip had appeared. The 1936 article said that it was in the records of the Hobart Chapter as having been received at its organization in 1871 from the Union Chapter. But in the next issue we learn that Morton C. Stewart (Brown, 1894), a longtime officer of the Union Chapter, had written in to say that "the first official illustration of the grip is not that in the Hobart Chapter records for 1871 but an exactly similar pen-sketch in the Union Chapter's record book dated 1817."

Subsequent research by William T. Hastings, who wrote Phi Beta Kappa as a Secret Society, and Oscar M. Voorhees, the Phi Beta Kappa Historian who wrote The History of Phi Beta Kappa, has confirmed that the drawing was sent from Yale in 1817 with the charter for the Union Chapter.