What is a Panhandle?

Oklahoma's panhandle includes three counties.
Oklahoma's panhandle includes three counties.

It is easy to spot a panhandle on a pan; the part that is used to lift the pan off the surface. The same concept is also used to describe a geographical feature on land. In geography, a panhandle is a long, narrow, strip of land that projects from the main body of an area. The narrow strip is shaped in the handle of a pan from where it derives its name. Panhandle is not a peninsula but rather a narrow extension of a geographical area such as a sovereign state or a subnational entity. The difference between a panhandle, also known as a salient, and a peninsula is that the panhandle is not bordered by water on any three sides. Instead, it is bordered by land on two or more sides and protrudes out from the main geographical body. The concept of panhandle may not be purely geographic but can also include demographic component.

Origin of the Term “Panhandle”

The protruding geographical surface from the main surface is commonly referred to as a salient surface. However, the American English use the word “panhandle” to refer to a long and narrow strip of land such as the northernmost area of Texas. Terms such as chimney and bootheel are also used to refer to such an area. The term “salient” may have been derived from military salient which is a battlefield feature or area that extends into enemy territory. A military salient, like the geographical salient, is surrounded by the enemy on multiple sides (geographical salient is surrounded by land on multiple sides). The use of the word “panhandle” is mainly confined to the United States and is derived from the part that is used to lift off a cooking pan.

Panhandles in the US

Nine states in the United States have panhandles, all of various sizes and shapes. These states include Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. The extreme northern section of Idaho panhandle is often referred to as “The Chimney” because it resembles a chimney when viewed from the map. Although Utah has a protrusion, the area is not usually referred to as a panhandle since it is the home to the state capital and contains half of the Salt Lake City metropolitan area which is the most populous area in the state. New York also has a protrusion on the southern portion which is more conspicuous than some panhandles like Texas and Nebraska. However, it is never considered a panhandle as it is the most densely populated region in the state. West Virginia is the only state with two panhandles; eastern West Virginia and northern West Virginia.

Why Do Panhandles Exist?

When one looks at a map, they may wonder why these narrow strips of land remained an extension of a geographical entity rather than merge with the other area surrounding it. For instance, Namibia should have surrendered the Caprivi Strip to Botswana or Western Oklahoma should have been part of Texas. However, most geographical entities such as countries and states were not willing to relinquish a part of their land mainly for political, geographical, and topographical reasons. The existence of panhandles can only be explained by how countries, states, and territories got their shapes.


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