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    

Lot Of 110 Vintage Hankies/hankerchiefs-various Sizes & StylesFab Lot 16 Vtg Estate Ladies Hankies Floral Hp Handkerchief Zodiac Valentine +++6 Vintage Shamrock Clover Irish St Patrick's Day Hankies HandkerchiefsFive Lot Lovely Cotton Vintage Valentine HankiesVintage 30's Polka Dot Trunk Down Elephant Red Work Bandana HandkerchiefHuge Mixed Lot 90 Vintage Handkercheifs Or Hankies Some With Stickers New & Used7 Vintage Ladies Hankies White Wedding Fine Embroidery Linen Lace Cotton35 Lot Vintage Needlework Edge Crochet Tatted Hankies Handkerchiefs Tags UnusedEstate Lot Of 35 Vintage Ladies Hankies Handkerchiefs Embroidered Floral VarietyVintage Floral Hankys/handkerchiefs~lot Of 11Lot Of 90 Vintage Cutter/craft Crochet Lace, Embroidered Hankies Handkerchiefs12+ Vintage Ladies Hankies Minor Imperfections Wedding Net Lace EmbroideryVintage Lot Of 10 Pink Floral Hankies HandkerchiefsVintage Hanky Lot Of 74 Cutter Crafts Handkerchiefs W Flowers Crochet EmbroideryVintage Fast Color Elephant Trunk Down Polka Dot Bandana !Vintage Womens Handkerchiefs Lot Of 12Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Variety Sizes Florals Linen Embroidered Lot Of 57 Beautiful Lot Of 21 Vintage Hankies Mostly Florals Lot Of 46 Ladies Handkerchiefs Hankies Floral Embroidered Holes Or StainsVintage Child's Hankie Unused Vibrant This Little Pig Print AdorableLot Of 55 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Lot Of 9 Vintage Children's Hankies HandkerchiefsLot Of 40 Wedding Hankies, White,ivory, Grayish, Embroidery, Laces, MadeiraHuge Lot 120+ Vtg Ladies Handkerchiefs Lace Cotton Embroidery Hankies3 Vintage Ladies Hankies Pansies Set In Original Box Embroidered Tag Swiss ExcBeautiful Lot 24 Vtg Estate Ladies Hankies Floral Print Handkerchief Cutters UseLot Of 26 Vintage Floral & Print Hankies Handkerchiefs Good ConditionLot Of 8 Vintage Floral Ladies' HandkerchiefsLot Of 6 Vintage St. Patrick's Day Hankies Handkerchiefs 4 Good Cond 2 W/holes11 Vintage Lot Of Floral Hankies Yellow Green Pink Flowers Handkerchiefs VgcLadies Lot Of 15 Vintage Assorted Handkerchiefs/hankies~~lot 2 Lot Of 11 Vintage Ladies Floral Embroidered Hankies HandkerchiefsVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Sheer Black Tiny Embroidered Flowers Mini ScallopsNice Vintage Floral Edge Bandana 20" X 23"Vintage Ladies Hanky Handkerchief Lot New And OldLot Of 13 Vintage Hankies, Cats, Dog, Kids, Xmas.Great Looking Vintage Faded Paisley Bandana 21" X 23"Lot 65 Vintage Craft Cutter Hankies Embroider Tatted Floral Hand Painted Burmel12 Lady's Vtg Hankies Handkerchiefs Spring Flowers All Floral, C1920s-40sLot 5 Vintage St Patricks Day Hankies Shamrock Irish Embroidery Hand PaintedLot Vintage Linen Hankies Lace Madeira Embroidered Florals Purple & YellowLadies Lot Of 15 Vintage Assorted Handkerchiefs/hankiesVintage Hankies, Ladies Handkerchiefs, Embroidered, Crocheted Large LotLot 15 Vintage Ladies Floral Handkerchiefs Vintage Ladies Hankie Unused Petit Point Incredibly Fine Hand RollVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Sheer Linen Wedding Dainty Embroidery DrawnVintage Mixed Lot 18 Ladies Handkerchiefs HankiesVintage Boston Terrier Puppy With His Toy Hanky 7 Vintage Ladies Hankies Sweet Monograms Embroidery Linen Cotton 1 Silk 1 BlendVintage Black Mourning Handkerchief Hanky With Hand Embroidery Rosebud EdgeSwanky Pale Yellow Hanky Daffodils Or Lilies Green Leaves Scalloped Rolled Hem 4 Vintage Ladies Hankies Purple Floral Prints Tatted Lace & Pansy EmbroideryVintage Handkerchief Hanky Carol Stanley Skier Snowflakes Winter SceneVintage Hankie Lot Including 1969 Calendar Hankie8 Vintage Purple Lavender Mostly Floral Hankies Handkerchiefs Lot # 1 - Ten Vintage Hankies46-vintage Handkerchief-hanky-hankies Lot-inc 2-burmel Christmas-many UnusedTammis Keefe New York New York What A Wonderful Town Hankie Vintage HandkerchiefVintage Red Floral Edge Bandana 19" X 22"Vintage Bird Hanky, Kreier