Why do cartoon characters only have three fingers?
Dear Straight Dope:
While at the bank machine last week, I noticed that the little cartoon graphic over the waste slot had a gloved hand with only three fingers. Which started me to thinking about three-fingered cartoon hands in general. What is the reason for this now-universal and anatomically-incorrect practice? Was Walt Disney simply not able to draw a credible 4-fingered Mickey Mouse?
I've always been preaching the idea, mostly to a tone deaf choir, that the simplest answers are usually the most correct. Here, to mix metaphors, I shall step out on this limb once again and give you the answer preferred by cartoon historians everywhere:
It was just simpler to do it that way.
You have to remember that the practice began in the early days of animation, before computer animation and limited animation simplified the creation of cartoon shorts. Twenty-four frames had to be drawn for each second of film. (Limited animation, developed by Hanna-Barbera in the 60s, reduced that to as little as six frames per second.) If you have a typical seven minute short (which is really lowballing it, but just to be on the safe side), that's 24 frames x 60 seconds x 7 minutes, which comes to a little less than 11,000 drawings for one cartoon. Each of those drawings then had to be inked and painted to create an animation cel. Many studios were under the gun to put out three or more shorts per month. So one less finger could mean a sizeable reduction in the amount of work to be done.
Another reason was that, especially in the early days, cartoon art was pretty basic. The clunky line drawings lacked the detail seen nowadays even in some Saturday morning cartoons. (They still show Saturday morning cartoons, don't they? It's so hard to keep up when Cecil keeps me locked in a box with no holes.) A five-fingered hand would look too big and add a level of realism that would seem incongruous alongside the rest of the character. It wasn't until some studios began trying to create realistic human figures that you saw a five-fingered hand on screen. Let's face facts--realism isn't a big issue when you're dealing with talking rats.
The real question is why they wear gloves, but that's a subject for another time.