My expertise is that this goes back to George Washington"s time when having one"s portrait painted was really fashionable. However, artists did not like paint arms and also legs because they regularly got the proportions wrong. So, lock would provide discounts on their fees if the sitter was all set to hide one eight behind his back or sheathe a leg behind a item of drapery. If friend look at paints from that duration you will see numerous examples the the topic with his hand tucked right into his belt coat or covert behind something.Sounds feasible to me.

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The George Washington story and that of artist of his time that charged prices according to the variety of limbs lock were an alleged to paint shows up to be inconsistent. A an ext credible etymology is the following:

The expression “to price an arm and also a leg” is a metaphor about precious body parts. The similar line “I’d provide my ideal arm…” dates from the early 1600s.

The expression “an arm and also a leg” rattled turn off the tongue easily prior to itwas offered to denote an exorbitant price. After the American civil War,Congress enacted a one-of-a-kind pension because that soldiers who had lost both anarm and also a leg. The expression “cost one arm and also a leg” starts to crop up innewspaper archives in 1901, referring to accidents and war injuries.In 1949, it reflects up in the figurative sense.

The lengthy Beach independent reported, "Food editor Beulah Karney has … ideas for thehomemaker who desires to speak "Merry Christmas" and not have actually it cost anarm and also a leg."

(mentalfloss.com)


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Christine Ammer, American Heritage thesaurus of Idioms, second edition 2013) has this appropriate entry:

arm and a leg an exorbitant lot of money, together in These will hotels fee an arm and also a leg because that a kind meal, or Fixing the automobile is going to price an arm and also a leg. Follow to Eric Partridge, this hyperbolic idiom, which is always used in conjunction through verbs such as "cost," "charge," or "pay," an came to be widely known from the 1930s on, more than likely came native the 19th-century American criminal slang phrase, if that takes a leg (that is, also at the cost of a leg), come express desperate determination.

An Elephind search for "cost an arm and a leg" turns up this match from "Rex Beach, Novelist, v Sight revitalized by Bride"s Care, will certainly Take new Wife on new Hunt for Coveted "Blue" Bear" in the New York night World (September 12, 1908):

Once there , would certainly you dauntlessly moustache fourteen brown and black bears and also grizzlies—all you find—and slay every bruin"s son of "em and also so strain her tortured eyes looking for that blue bear"s den the only 5 weeks the ceaseless treatment in a hospital would restore an almost helpless instance of iritis—the many painful malady recognized to medicine?

Then, nursed ago to life by the same small wife who had unconsciously collection you revolving in a whirlwind that adventure and peril, would certainly you still urge that were there yet one of those blue bear in presence you would yet bring it house for that little blue room, though it cost an arm and also a leg besides the eye?

The usage of "cost one arm and also a leg" her shows up to be literal (but exaggerated), fairly than a figurative way of speak "cost a the majority of money." Nevertheless, it suggests that "cost one arm and a leg" was already idiomatic in the U.S. In 1908.

The oldest match I could find because that "cost an arm and also a leg" in a purely figurative sense is from "Record Accessories," in The record Changer, volume 7 (February 1948) :

The best needle on the market for part time now has actually been the diamond point. However, it had actually one significant drawback. It cost an arm and also a leg, running around $50. The Walco people, realizing the the diamond, due to its excessive hardness and also highly polished surface, did the least injury to document surfaces, strove for plenty of years come devise a cheaper way in which to polishing the precious stones. They have lastly come out with a diamond allude needle i m sorry sells for around one 4 minutes 1 of the vault one. Now it only costs $12.50. This is still a many hay however one cannot suppose the price ever to come under much listed below this. It"s pretty easy to chip a sapphire however one would need to really go some to do any kind of damage at all to one of these babies. Expensive however good.

Another instance, in the may 1948 worry of the exact same publication, reads together follows:

Several readers have actually written requesting that we mail lock their copies either an initial class or airmail. I really don"t know how to answer these requests. First of every it costs one arm and also a leg to letter a publishing these classes considering that the weight varies between 5 and also 8 ounces. Girlfriend fellows would need to pay the , the course. Is it precious it to you to do that? My very own feeling top top the subject is that unless all duplicates were ceded in that way it would give an unfair benefit to the fellows who spend the extra postage money.

I confirmed the days of both instances at the net Archive.

Also, from an unidentified advertisement—possibly for Hoffman Motorcycles—in American Bicyclist and also Motorcyclist, volume 71, page 63 (1950):

Distributors and dealers are invited come write us for particulars. Countless customers have been hoping because that a high quality motor job that would not cost "an arm and a leg."

Hoffman made motorcycles native 1948 come 1954. A Hathi Trust search confirms that volume 71 that American Bicyclist and Motorcyclist was published in 1950.

In both instances native 1948 and also in the instance from 1950, the "arm and also a leg" are purely metaphorical.

See more: What Is The Greatest Common Factor Of 5 And 10, Gcf Of 5 And 10

Conclusions

It follows that "cost an arm and also a leg" has remained in use in the United claims in an exaggerated however literal sense because at least 1908, and also in a figurative feeling (meaning "expensive") since at the very least 1948.