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 Lot Of 92 Cutter Hankies Floral Crochet Children's Linen Cotton SilkLot Of 20 Vintage Cotton & Linen Floral Print Hankies25 Pretty Vintage Floral Flower Hankies Roses Violets Handkerchiefs Most "new"7 Antique French Lace Handkerchiefs Valenciennes Brussels Normandy Point De GazeVintage Lot Hankies Colorful Florals Scalloped Iris Rose Geometric Daisy JonquilLot Of 65 Vintage Ladies Hankies Handkerchiefs Floral Wedding Scalloped MoreLot 32 Vintage Ladies Hankies Handkerchief Floral Hand Painted Scalloped Huge Lot 60 Vintage Ladies Hankie Handkerchief 50s Era Estate Sale Find CraftsLot Of 21 Vintage Floral Hankies Handkerchiefs HankyVtg Womens Hankies Handkerchiefs Huge Lot 100 + Fanciwork EmbroideryVintage Lot Of 51 Floral Print Women Hankies Handkerchiefs 1940's 50's 60'sLot Of 45 Vtg Hankies Handkerchief Floral Embroidery Lace Wedding Bells WhiteVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Wedding Fine Linen Lace Embroidery Drawn ThreadsVintage Lot Of 5 Elephant Trunk Up And Down Made In Usa Bandanas45 Vintage Hankie Handkerchief Lot Floral, Crochet, EmbroideryBeautiful Vintage White Lace Trim Handkerchief Linen Wedding BrideLot 55 Vintage Craft Cutter Ladies Hankies Embroider Tatted Floral Hand PaintedVintage Tammis Keefe Handkerchief Mushroom Theme Grey Hand Rolled Edge HankieVintage Handkerchief~christmas~lace~scallop~hand Rolled~state~lot Of 25 HankiesVintage Handkerchief Womens Hankie 24 Lot Floral Embroidery Monogram ChristmasVintage Happy Birthday W Cake , Presents, Roses, Sayings Hanky HandkerchiefVintage Hankie Museum Quality Hand Embroidery Floral Handkerchief Wedding LovelyVintage 59 Women's Handkerchiefs Switzerland Burmel Pure Linen Irish Linen Cotto7 Vintage Ladies Hankies White Wedding Unused Fine Embroidery Fine LaceLovely Vintage Schiffli Lace Wedding Handkerchief Hankie Big Lot Vtg White & Ivory & Ecru Handkerchiefs W Linen Lace Nos Embroidery Hanky2 Vintage Round Cotton Floral Print HankiesLot Of Seven Vintage Floral Print And Applique Handkerchiefs12 Vintage Linen Wedding Handkerchiefs Tatting Drawnwork Embroidery UnusedTwo Lovely Vintage Ivory Linen Floral Net Lace Handkerchief Hankie6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Pink Floral 1950s Era Lot7 Unused Vtg Red Hearts Valentine Handkerchiefs Dancing Hearts Flowers Hanky Lot13 Vintage Ladies Hankies Minor Imperfections Wedding Lace Fine EmbroideryGorgeous Lot Of 18 Vintage Womens Ladies Hankies Handkerchiefs ~ Floral ~ Euc6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Lavender Floral 50s Era Lot38 Vintage Handkerchief Hankies Floral Christmas Wedding Mixed LotLot Of 15 Vtg Flower Floral Scalloped Ladies Hankies Hanky Handkerchiefs 50s 60sVintage Dessin Depose How To Win Hanky HandkerchiefAntique Wide Lace Bridal Vintage Ladies Handkerchief Hanky Creamy IvoryVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Wedding Fine Sheer Linen Spectacular LaceVintage Deep Net Lace W Roses Fancy Bridal Cotton Handkerchief Hankie6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Aqua Floral 1950s Era Lot6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Slate Gray Floral 1950s Era LotVintage Faith Austin Designer Signed Kimball Hanky Handkerchief Keys Design5 Vintage Ladies Hankies Hand Crochet Lace Pink Linen 1 Cotton3 Vintage Ladies Hankies Delicate Floral Prints Sheer Scallops FlowersLot Of 9 Vintage Embroidered Cotton/linen Ladies Handkerchiefs,Ladies Vintage Unused Hankie Sheer Aqua With Golden Lilacs Dogwoods ScallopedVintage Children's Handkerchief, Hankie, Lot Of 2, Kitten, Teddy Bears, HoneyLot Of 30 Assorted Vintage HankiesLot Of 10 Vintage Hankies - My 94-year Old Mother's Hankies - Blue - Purple -gre6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Navy Blue Floral 1950s Era Lot6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Pretty Pink Floral 50s Era Lot10 Vintage Ladies Hankies Dainty Embroidery Most UnusedVintage Linen Block Freres Un-used Hankie Red & Pink Roses Rolled Hem14 Vintage Ladies Hankies State Souvenir Tags Old Store Stock Cotton FranshawSwanky 12x12 Cotton Hanky Grey W White Lilies Of The Valley? Green Leaves Cotton3 Vintage Ladies Hankies State Souvenir Texas Tags Hand Roll Pink BlueLot Of 20 Vtg Flower Floral Scalloped Ladies Hankies Hanky Handkerchiefs 50s 60sVtg Lot 50 Hankies Some Nwt, Madeira, Florals, Wedding, Souvenir, Embroidered +