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]

Ventagli.org

Ventagli.org

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]

Antiquespectacles.com

Antiquespectacles.com

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 Woman's 74 Handkerchief/hankie Lot - 1 Estate-florals-holiday-tatting +!Vintage Lot Floral Hankies Roses Tulips Poppy Lily Daisy Mum Daffodil Colorful Lot Of 10 Vintage Ladies Hankies Hankerchief Cotton Printed Pinks FloralVintage Carl Tait Chicago Illinois Souvenir Handkerchief Tagged Unused VtnsVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Wedding Exceptional Hand Embroidery Pulled ThreadLot Of 32 Vintage Floral & Print Hankies Handkerchiefs Excellent Cond 4 Round8 Vintage Ladies Hankies Hand Crochet Tatted Lace Pretty Pastels Cotton LinenLot Of 10 Vintage Ladies Hankies Hankerchief Cotton Printed FloralVintage Chicago Illinois State Souvenir Handkerchief Great! Vtns Vintage Ladies Handkerchief Hankie Sheer Black Linen Pink & White Flowers EdgeLot Of 35 Vintage Floral Ladies Hankies/handkerchiefsLot Of 53 Vintage Handies/hankerchiefs Embroidered Crocheted Foreign LabeledVintage Handkerchiefs Hankies Hankeys Lot 47 Flowers Crochet Trim EmbroideryLot Of 6 Vintage Floral HandkerchiefVintage 5 Ladies Hankie Unused Swiss Pretty V Embroidery Rose SheerVintage Marghab Handkerchief Forget-me-not #866 Label GremioVintage Lot Of 16 Colorful Hankies/ Lots Of Floral Designs & Misc.Lot Of 25 Vintage Ladies Hankies-crochet, Tatting, Fancy Corners-never UsedVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Wedding Drawn Thread Embroidery Hemstitch LinenVintage 6 Ladies Hankie Unused Swiss Pretty V Embroidery Hand Roll SheerVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Wedding Alencon Dainty Lace Linen TinyVintage Texas Centennial 1836 - 1936 Yellow Linen Hanky Handkerchief. UnusedLot Of 50 Vintage Ladies Hankies & Handkerchief Holder Vtg Mixed Lot Of 50 Hankies HandkerchiefsVintage Lot Of Hankies,handkerchiefs- Linen,cotton,embroidered 67 Total,some TagVtg Wedding Handkerchief/hankie Extensive Dainty Hand Embroidery, Pulled Thread12 Beautiful Vintage Ladies Hankies, Mostly Purples And Lavender5 Vintage Ladies Hankies Hand Crochet Lace Sweet Blues Linen CottonVintage Bandana Lot Western Cotton Elephant Blue Red Handkerchief Cowboy8 Vintage Round Hanky Hankie Lot NrVintage Ladies Hankie Unused High Society Dog Jewels Tag Burmel Sheer Hand Roll8 Vintage Ladies Hankies Hand Crochet Lace Pink & Green All LinenLot 10 Vintage Children's Hankies Crochet Floral Ballerinas Kitty Pig9 Vtg Hanky Lot All White Ecru Handkerchiefs Lace Wedding Tatting Flower CutworkVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Tag Kimball Vivid Pink Blue Floral Hand RollHuge Antique Handkerchief Hankie Lot Over 5030 White Vintage Wedding Handkerchiefs - Embroidered, Cutwork & CrochetVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Tag Kimball Lily Valley Pink Blue Linen Hand RollVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Dainty Pink Roses Embroidery Hand RollVintage Handkerchief - Alice Meets Tweedledum And Tweedledee - Disney WonderlandVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Tag Irish Linen Hand Roll Pink Red Blue FloralVintage Shades Of Red Feathery Carnations~green Leaves~scalloped Edge Hankie2 Vintage Childrens HankiesVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Tag Swiss Sweet Birds Delicate PrintVtg Child's Hankie Handkerchief Mama Kitty Cat Doing Laundry Hanging ClothesGreat Color Mixed Lot 40+ Vintage Handkerchiefs Hankies Floral Print EmbroideredVintage Handkerchief Lot Hankies Hanky Floral Cotton Ladies Blue Red Pink 30 Pc18 Vtg Handkerchiefs Wedding Bridal Linen Lace Embroidery Imperfect Dolls CraftsVintage Handkerchiefs Lot Of 20Vintage Ladies Hankies~handkerchiefs~brides~silk~floral~applique~crochet~lot 23Vintage Lot Of 10 Hankies - Colorful Variety Of Prints - All Lovely!!Vintage Pink Roses Handkerchief Vintage Hanky Hankies Handkerchief Kitty Cat Swinging With Red BirdLot Of 28 White Vintage Wedding Lace Crochet Embroider Handkerchiefs Hanky LinenLot Of 10 Vintage Hankerchiefs Hankies Hanky All Florals ExvcVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Tag Ball Mums Bold Print Linen Hand RollLot Of 18 Vintage Hankies~all Have Issues~see Photos PleaseLot Of Vintage Handkerchiefs / HankiesNice Lot Of Vintage Hankies~some With TagsTen Vintage Hankie Lot~all Have Issues~crafts~cutter~use