‘look (mum, or ma), no hands!’: meaning and origin

The exclamative phrase look (mum, or ma), no hands! is used of something done cleverly—as in this extract from the portrait of Anthony Eden 1 by Michael Foot 2, published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Friday 29th February 1952:

The post-war Eden appeared ready for any summons. Those Tories who suspected that Churchill 3 was lapsing into his political second childhood looked eagerly for the day Anthony would mount the throne
And Anthony himself was willing to respond. When he stepped to the despatch box last November he seemed to have acquired a new ease and mastery
Questions were answered with a cultivated languor. The Foreign Office brief was carefully laid aside to make room for a burst of feeling. He liked to show his skill manipulating the diplomatic vehicle.
Look, no hands!” he seemed to be saying to the admiring spectators. And how the Tories cheered! The hungry sheep had not tasted pasture since the General Election. Now they gobbled up each morsel as if they had been thrown chunks of red meat.

1 The British Conservative politician Robert Anthony Eden (1897-1977) was then Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
2 Michael Mackintosh Foot (1913-2010) was a British journalist and Labour Party politician.
3 The British Conservative statesman Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) was then Prime Minister.

The phrase also occurs, for example, in At Westminster, published in Truth (London, England) of Friday 11th March 1955:

The real way to present Service Estimates was demonstrated on Tuesday by Mr Head. He hates to use a brief and appears at the box unarmed. For the listener there is always a hint of apprehension in his enjoyment of Mr Head’s speeches. Will he remember all the points? Will he get the figures right? If there is a touch of ‘look: no hands!’ about his performance there is also some very deft steering. Mr head does not forget – not even the jokes – and for an hour and a quarter he expounded War Office policy clearly and attractively, as though he were chatting at the In and Out 4.

4 The Naval and Military Club, 4 St James’s Square, London, is known as the In and Out, from the carriage gates at the old clubhouse at 94 Piccadilly.

And here is an American-English use of the phrase—from The Kentucky Post (Covington, Kentucky) of Saturday 23rd January 1954:

Mrs. Carl Ruh accompanied the Kenton county senator to Frankfort for the week’s legislative sessions and the governor’s reception for Democrats on Wednesday night.
So Carl didn’t have to use his own special system of communications to get messages to her.
However, even when she’s at their S. Ft. Mitchell home, Senator Ruh can contact her, and does, without use of long-distance telephones, wires, or carrier pigeons. (“Look ma, no hands”).
He does it by short-wave radio from his hotel room.

The phrase look (mum, or ma), no hands! originated as the proud exclamation of a child riding a bicycle with no hands on the handlebars—as illustrated by the following from Kate O’Connor’s Column, titled that day Reckless Drivers Lucky or Soon Dead, published in the San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California) of Saturday 8th May 1937:

I’ve often thought it’s the “small boy” in every man that makes him show off when he’s driving. When he was 10 or 12 he raced down the street on his bicycle, waving his arms in air and shouting, “Look, no hands!

This gave rise to a funny story, told on either side of the Atlantic:

– In Britain: For example, the following is from Bubble & Squeak: Stories from Everywhere, published in The Tatler and Bystander (London, England) of Wednesday 17th October 1945:

A small boy had just had a new bicycle and was proudly showing it off. His mother stood at the gate and watched him. He shot off up the road, and on the return journey he had his hands off the handlebars.
Look, mum—no hands!” he shouted proudly.
“Oh, do be careful dear,” said his mother. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
The lad grinned cheerfully, and cycled up the road again. The next time his mother saw him, his feet were swinging loose in the air.
Look, mum—no feet!
Again his mother protested feebly, but off he shot again. He didn’t come back quite so quickly this time, and when he did, he called out, not quite so cheerfully: “Look mum—no teeth!

– In the USA: For example, the following is from Through the Shop Window, published in the Monroe Evening Times (Monroe, Wisconsin) of Wednesday 26th September 1945:

Little Johnny received a new bike for his birthday, to show his mother how he rode, it was once around the block. . . Look ma, no hands, next time ’round the block, look ma, no feet, next time ’round the block, look ma, no teeth.

There have been numerous punning uses of the phrase—here are two:

1-: From the column Echoes and Gossip of the Day, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Saturday 8th March 1952:

Look! No Hands!
A handless clock is being manufactured by the Gronolux-Vertriebs G.m.b.H. in Hanover, Germany. It works electrically. The time is shown by a system of figures, thrown by a projector on to a screen of opaque glass. These clocks are being supplied to industry, to hotels and post offices, as well as for domestic use.

2-: From the column ‘Gazette’ Gossip, by ‘Gazza’, published in the Eastbourne Gazette (Eastbourne, Sussex, England) of Wednesday 12th May 1954:

Look, No Hands!
Representing Eastbourne at the annual Health Congress at Scarborough recently were Dr K. O. A. Vickery, Eastbourne’s Medical Officer of Health, and Coun. Mrs W. L. Lee.
One of the resolutions discussed urged that the practice of shaking hands should be discouraged as it was considered out of date and unhealthy. I understand that the custom originated from the days when people were not as sociable as they are to-day. It showed that you had not a weapon concealed in your hand if you stretched out your palm to shake hands.

Published in The Chicago Daily News (Chicago, Illinois) of Friday 13th June 1941, this Life’s Like That cartoon by Fred Neher (1903-2001) depicts a baby, his feeding bottle between his feet, saying to other babies, who are holding their feeding bottles in their hands:

Look . . . no hands!!

'look, no hands' Fred Neher - Chicago Daily News (Chicago, Illinois) - 13 June 1941