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”)

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]

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]

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    

Lot 27 Vintage State Handkerchiefs Hankie FranshawLot Of 25 Vintage Ladies Hankies, Floral And Print HandkerchiefsHuge Lot Of 51 Vintage Hankies, HandkerchiefsVintage Handkerchief/hankies Assorted Lot Of 1545 Vintage Ladies Hankies And 2 Hankie BoxesLot Of Various Vintage Handkerchiefs And Doilies With Various PatternsLot Of 45 Vintage Ladies Handkerchiefs Flowers Round Square Cotton Multi ColoredVintage Swiss Appenzell Embroidered Needle Lace Bridal Wedding Handkerchief Lot Of 92 Vintage Handkerchief Hankies Floral Holiday Plaid EmbroideredVtg Lot Hankies-handkerchief Bridial-crochet-tatting-floral-plain-linen-cotton Lot 35+ Vintage Handkerchiefs Hankies Florals Scallops RosesHankies Vintage Lot Of 30 Assorted NiceLot Of 60 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs 73 Vintage Hankies Florals, Prints Scalloped & Rolled Edges Clean Euc BurmelVintage Handkerchief 60 Piece Lot White Linen Lace Floral Printed EmbroideredVtg 80 Hankies Crochet Embroidered White Lace Print Florals Scalloped Mixed LotLot Of 30 Vintage Ladies' Handkerchiefs Crochet Lace Print Floral Linen Cotton Vintage Lot 59 Fancy Handkerchiefs Floral Crotchet Embroidered Hankies Vintage A. Skandia Sweetheart Series Handkerchief Hankie 1960s4) Vintage, White, Desco, Irish Linen, Fancy Handkerchiefs, All With LabelsVintage Lot 19 Colorful Floral Handkerchief Square Straight Sides42 Vintage Hankies White Linen, Cotton, Lace, Embroidery, Applique Excellent !Vintage Lot 16 Colorful Floral Handkerchiefs Different Shapes Scalloped Edges Vintage Used Lot Of 15 HandkerchiefsVintage Used Lot Of 18 HandkerchiefsVtg Madeira Applique Floral Linen Hankie Unused Lot Of 8 Wedding Bridal BridesmaVintage Tammis Keefe Designer Handkerchief Seattle WashingtonVintage White Linen Hankies, Lot Of 9. Never Used And In Great Condition.Monogram "b" Hankie ~ Blue Flowers ~ Boston Store Box ~ Hong Kong LabelSet Of 11 Vintage Women's Handkerchiefs Lot Of 10 Vintage Women's HandkerchiefsVtg Know Your Presidents Men Handkerchief - 1954Amazing Lot Of 26 Vintage Ladies Hankies Handkerchiefs Vintage Handkerchiefs - Purple Passion! - 9 Lovely Purple-accented HankiesVtg Handkerchief State Pennsylvania Souvenir Hanky Franshaw Original Tag New NosVintage Handkerchiefs Lot Of Ten Nice VarietyLot Of 16 Vintage Hankys Hankies Vintage Monogrammed "f" Fine Linen HandkerchiefLot Of 8 Vintage Children's Hankies, Some Unused, Donald Duck, Mixed Lot 50 Ladies Vtg Handkerchiefs * Hanky Handky's Craft Cutters Use Vintage Children's HankiesLot Of Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs #4Lot Of 6 Beautiful Unique Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Beautiful Vintage Black Cotton Hanky W/floralsLot Of 9 Vintage Floral Hankies Hankerchiefs ,niceVintage Womans Embroidered Hankerchiefs Lot Of 9Lot Of 9 Vintage Floral Hankies HankerchiefsLot Of 20 Vintage HandkerchiefsVintage Ladies Handkerchief Signed Tammis Keefe Wine Pink White Hand Rolled Hem9 Vintage Ladies Floral Print HankerchiefsLot Of 4 Vintage Red Christmas Hankies Handkerchiefs Vintage Lot Of 26 Ladies Floral Hankies--lot 2 Of 3Vintage Madeira Hand Embroidered Linen Handkerchief Fan Flowers + Bow * Bride!12 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief Embroidered Applique Lot Flowers +Lot Of 80+ Vintage Cutter/craft Embroidered, Crochet Hankies W Flaws,Vintage Lot Of 26 Ladies Floral Hankies--lot 1 Of 3Vintaage Hanky - Souvenir Map Fmichigan - Cotton - 13" Square - Cotton - CleanVtg 60's Virginia Souvenier HandkerchiefLot Of 20 Vintage Cutter/craft Wedding Lace Hankies , Crochet & Tatted LaceLot Of 13 Vintage Embroidered Handkerchiefs Hankies, Some With Original Labels