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”)



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]

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]



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    

Lge. Lot Of 62 True Vintage Hankies - Great Variety Color And Style27 Vintage Hankies " Nice Clean Variety "Vintage Ladies Handkerchief - Beautiful Ballerinas!Vintage Hanky Hankie Lot~116~printed Floral Embroidered Crochet Lace Lot Of 30 Vintage Floral Handkerchiefs Hankies Estate Great L@@k!Lot Of 5 Vintage Very Nice Cotton Floral Print Hankies13 Very Rare! Antique Vtg Bandana Cotton Handkerchief Lot - Tuside - IronweaveFine Estate Lot 225 Vintage Hankies Floral Wedding Embroidery Lace MonogramLarge Lot Of 65 Vintage Mostly Floral Hankies Handkerchiefs Nice Variety CleanLot Of 16 Vintage Handkerchiefs Flowers Hankies Polka Dots Butterflies Roses OldLot Of 18 Vintage Bandanas Elephant Southwestern Harley Tour Tiger Elephant DsTwo Vintage Walt Disney Hankies - Mickey & Minnie MouseLot Of 7 Vintage Cotton Embroidered Hankies - Mother, Valentine, Floral..Children's Vintage Hanky - Saggy Baggy Elephant - Little Golden Book Design GustVintage Hankie, Printed With Calendar Year Of 1952Vintage Country Souvenir Handkerchief Hankie Europe Map Scalloped Eiffel Tower7 Vintage Cotton Floral Print Hankies - 1 Burmel Hanky Of The MonthLot Of Five Children's Vintage Cotton Print HankiesVintage Ladies Linen Handkerchief, Made And Embroidered In Madiera PortugalTwo Vintage Walt Disney Hankies - Pluto & Donald DuckVintage Designer Pat Prichard Linen Hanky 50's Tv Shows Antennas On HousesVintage Handkerchief Hankie Designer Dessin Depose How To Fight Insomnia SleepVintage Signed Betty Anderson Squirrel Unused Cotton Handkerchief Ladies Hankey 23 Vintage Unused Printed Floral Ladies Hankies Hankerchiefs Some With TagsVintage State Souvenir Handkerchief Hankie Connecticut Map Scalloped Hartford 4 Vintage Cotton Floral Print Hankies W Crocheted Trim4 Vintage White Cotton & Linen Hankies W Crocheted TrimChildren's Vintage Cotton Print Nursery Rhyme Hanky - See Saw Margery DawVintage Dior Floral Cotton Handkerchief JapaneseVintage Ladies Hankie Unused New Mexico Tag Franshaw State Souvenir Map UnusedVintage 1940s Quaker Lace Tablecloth Thanksgiving Banquet Size CollectorLot Of 100 Colorful Vintage Ladies Hankies Vtg Womens Hankies Handkerchiefs Lot Of 50 Mint Condition Floral Lace MoreVintage Tammis Keefe Wooden Cigar Indian Chief Cotton Handkerchief HankyLot Of 12 Vintage Ladies Women Printed Hankies With Floral Patterns Lot 34 Ladies Vtg Handkerchiefs Hanky's Souvenir Monogramed Holiday Birthday#360 Fab Lot Of 7 Vintage Floral Print Handkerchiefs Hankies Orange Turquoise BlEstate Twelve (12) Vtg White On White Wedding Madeira Stickers W-#12Lot Of 8 Vintage Ladies Floral Handkerchiefs Hankies Some Crochet & EmbroideredVintage "valentine's Day" Ladies HandkerchiefLily Of The Valley Flowers On Pale Blue Hand Rolled Vintage HankieVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Round Dainty Floral Print Scallops Pink RosesCute Farm Chickens~barn Countryside Child's Vintage HankieVintage Lot Of 42 Ladies Handkerchiefs Hankies Cloth Colors Flowers ChristmasLot Of 73 Vintage Women's Hankies 95% Perfect Floral Embroidered Lace Edged#357 Fab Bright Lot Of 7 Premium Printed Vintage Handkerchiefs Hankies Yellow ReLot Of 25 Vintage Cutter Floral & Print Hankies Handkerchiefs All FlawedLot Of 12 Vintage Ladies Women Embroidered Hankies With Floral PatternsLot Of 20 Vintage Cutter Monogram Hankies Handkerchiefs All Flawed BcdfghlmnrVintage Embroidered Monogrammed Ladies White Handkerchief (m) Madeira NwtLot Of 20 Vintage Hankies HandkerchiefsChildren's Vintage Cotton Print Hanky - Teddy Bears W FiddlesHm Antique Vtg Irish Carrickmacross Lace Handkerchief Hanky Hankie Panel *dolls Swanky Pale Yellow Embroidered Hanky Ribbons Pink Roses Scallopped 11x11 CottonRare Early Acheson Harden Irish Linen Child's Children's Handkerchief - 3 Bears7 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Embroidery/ Appliqué/ FloralLot Of 61 Vintage Ladie Hankies Embroidered Hand Stitch Mixed Pure Linen Cotten 3 Vintage Embroidered Cotton Floral Hankies In Box Made In SwitzerlandVintage Alaska State Cotton Print Souvenir Handkerchief Hankie Hanky Scalloped Vintage 1950’s Calendar Theme Handkerchief / Hankie / Hanky