When you think about it, the handkerchief is a fascinating object—a delicate response to one of the decidedly indelicate aspects of being human. Throughout history it has been considered both an old-fashioned and unhygienic rag, as well as a precisely embroidered symbol of high social standing.

Its origins, naturally, come from the same utilitarian cloth that inspired scarves, used to wipe away sweat and protect the head and mouth. In fact, the name “handkerchief” derives from medieval head scarves called “kerchiefs.”

When the handkerchief came into widespread use in Europe in the mid-1500s, nearly a century after the table napkin, it was another way for aristocrats to distinguish themselves from grubby peasants, who blew their noses on their sleeves and sneezed into their hats. The whiteness of the handkerchief upped the ante—because bleached white fabric revealed every stain, only the “civilized” elite could afford to have them replaced or laundered on a regular basis.

Eventually, the handkerchief was endowed with a romantic and spiritual symbolism that was unique among accessories. This is probably because a handkerchief is designed to absorb substances the body excretes—using someone’s hanky was a very intimate act, akin to other exchanges of bodily fluids like kissing. A handkerchief, it was thought, could contain the magical powers of the user’s tears, and was considered a physical extension of someone’s spiritual being. Handkerchiefs were often employed in religious rituals and church services.

Before long, ladies were presenting gentlemen with their lacy, embroidered, and fringed handkerchiefs—sometimes sewn with silver and golden threads—to indicate their romantic interest. Conversely, if a man snatched a hanky from a woman and used it, it was a gross violation.

Much like a hand fan, a handkerchief was held in a lady’s hand and used for flaunting, flirting, and expressing emotion in a tantalizing way, almost like flashing an undergarment. It’s unlikely that said lady would actually blow her nose into her most cherished object. Indeed, she would hardly be seen doing anything more vulgar than shedding a dainty tear or two. It’s similar to how it was deemed entirely improper to actually use a cane or walking stick for support.

The 16th century was also a time when high-society women’s clothing, particularly frame skirts made of bone or wood, made it difficult for a lady to move at all. She would use her handkerchief as a flag to signal when she needed something. Hankies, often of bobbin lace, came in a wide variety of shapes until the late 1700s, when Louis XVI, under the influence of Marie Antoinette, declared that all handkerchiefs should be square. For a time after that, handkerchiefs were generally made of fine linen lawn, with geometric or plant-themed embroidery or lace only around the edges...

By the 19th century, new technology in fabric-making allowed for handkerchiefs to be produced in a wide variety of patterns and materials—from linen to cotton to silk—and in darker, more practical colors. And so, handkerchiefs also became part of a fashionable gentleman’s wardrobe, although a crisp white handkerchief neatly folded into the front coat pocket was still the ultimate sign of class.

After centuries of popularity, the handkerchief fell out of favor in the 1930s, when paper manufacturer Kimberly-Clark began marketing its Kleenex-brand tissue as a more sanitary means of nose-wiping. Kleenex was originally sold as a makeup-removing cloth in the 1920s, but today the word is synonymous with handkerchief.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

LACMA Luxury Textiles

LACMA Luxury Textiles

Textile collectors shouldn't miss this microsite from the LA County Museum of Art, a great reference on European an… [read review or visit site]



Anna Checcoli's homage to the beauty and art of hand fans ('ventagli,' in Italian). Use the left-hand nav to browse… [read review or visit site]



Dr. David Fleishman's comprehensive spectacles site (over 3500 images), in collaboration with museums around the wo… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Old Lot Floral Print Handkerchief Hanky Hankies Scalloped Edges RetroVintage Hankie Made In Switzerland Novelty How To Get A HusbandLot Of 7 Vintage Blue & Red Wash Fast Color Bandanas Elephant Tuside TigerLot Of 45 Vintage Hankies Floral Prints Embroidery VarietyLot Of 40 Vtg Flower Floral Scalloped Mixed Cutter Craft Hankies HandkerchiefsVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Wedding Exceptional Hand Embroidery Pulled Thread20 Vintage Ladies Hankies Wedding & Whites Embroidery Lace Linen CottonLot Of 25 Vintage Floral ++ Hankies Handkerchiefs Good ConditionLot Of 25 Vintage Mostly Floral Hankies Handkerchiefs Good Condition CrochetedLot 35 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Cutters Crafts Flowered Crochet EmbroiderLot Of 25~vintage All Pinks Hanky Handkerchief~floral Tatting Crocheted Linen Vtg Hankies Lot Of 7 Scallop Hems Flowers Cotton Retro Hipster Costume EtsyLot 55 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Cutters Crafts Floral Tatted Embroidered Vintage Wedding Handkerchief Lot Lace Embroidery Crochet Madeira AppliqueLot 45 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Cutters Crafts Floral Tatted Embroidered Lot Of 40 Vintage Floral Cutter/craft Hankies Handkerchiefs CleanVintage Mixed Lot Of 31 Hankies Handkerchiefs Floral Embroidered Vintage Women's Hanky/handkerchief~round Floral5 Antique French Lace Bridal Wedding Handkerchiefs Tambour Valenciennes Tatting+Lot Of 32 Mostly Floral Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Good ConditionLot Of 31 Womens Floral Hand Sewn Tatted Intitials Roses Handerchiefs Hanky Mixed Lot Of 38 Vintage Hankies Floral Tatting HandkerchiefsVtg Antique Lot 48 Hankies Hanky Handkerchiefs Cotton Linen Lace Floral , WowLot Of 9 Vintage Hankerchiefs Hankies Hanky All Florals VgvcLot Of 12 Vintage 40's 50's 60's Floral Flower Handkerchief Hanky HankieBeautiful Vintage Ladies Handkerchief Hanky Pink Daisy Embroidered EdgingVariety Lot Of 66 Bandanas Vtg Ozzy Mickey Garfield Nascar Southwestern ModernLot 25 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Flowered Cutters/craft Floral LookNice Lof Of 9 Vintage Floral Hankies - All RoundLot Of 15 Vintage Hankies ~ Handkerchiefs ~ Reds~ Red Florals Vintage Novelty Hankie "skiing" Designer, Artist Tammis Keefe UnusedLot Of 16 Vintage Hankies Floral And White On WhiteVintage Childs Hankie With Proverbs, Witty Sayings, Mottos Lot Of 12 Vintage 40's 50's 60's Floral Flower Handkerchief Hanky Hankie Cotton Lot Of 17 Vintage Hankies / Handkerchiefs - Floral Printed And A Girl Scout4 Vintage Ladies Hankies Hand Crochet Tatted Lace All Whites 3 Linen 1 CottonVintage Hanky Astrology HoroscopeGorgeous Vintage Black Cotton W Red Petit Point Rose & Daisies Hanky UnusedVintage Childs Hanky Robinson Crusoe Starts On His Voyage Sailing Clipper ShipVintage Ladies HandkerchiefsVintage Hankie Lot 13 Ladies Handkerchiefs Embroidered Floral Hawaii ChristmasVtg Antique Hanky Hankie Black Background Purple Violet Flower Scalloped Hem Vtg Antique Hanky Hankie Black Background Large White Dogwood Rolled Hem FloralLot 53 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Cutters Crafts Floral Embroidered Lot Of 39 Mostly Floral Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Good ConditionLot 55 Vintage Craft Cutter Ladies Hankies Embroider Tatted Floral Hand PaintedLot Of 22 True Vintage Christmas Print Hankies, Handkerchiefs - Crotchet +60+ Vintage Handkerchief Hankie Hanky Lot Embroidered Crochet Applique Lace+2 Vintage Sewing Theme Pattern Pieces Dress Form Hankies Signed KatiLot 22 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Cutters Wedding Lace Drawnwork Tatted L3364- Lot Of 20 Vintage Ladies Hankies Handkerchiefs- Good Condition Lot 5 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Philippines 1 Franshaw N Dakota Mi Texas Ok Vintage Child's Hankie Hanky W Proverbs, Wise Sayings, Mottos, Free ShippingVintage Childs Hankie Hanky With Proverbs, Wise Sayings, Mottos, Free Shipping11 Vintage Christmas St Patricks Day Hankies Santa Bells Pine Cones Candy CaneVintage Hankies-lot Of 4-red/white Hearts,valentines Day Beautiful Designs Vintage Ladies 14" Round Violet Hankie Handkerchief Purple Floral FlowerVintage Hankie, Ladies, Unused, Zodiac Hankie, CapricornRed Hearts~white Ribbons~blue Birds~scalloped Valentine Vintage HankieVtg Antique Hanky Hankie Black Background Huge Daisy Circle Linen Rolled Hem