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    

45 Vintage Handkerchief Lot Floral Lace Embroidered Hankies Vintage Lot 12 Floral Print Handkerchief Ladies HankiesVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Christmas PoinsettiaVintage Lot Of 40 Womens Hankies Handkerchiefs Floral Switzerland TattedLot Of 14 Vintage Bandanas Tuside Elephant Cowboy Fast Color6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Blue Floral 1950s Era LotVintage 68 Women's Handkerchiefs Cotton Linen Ireland Floral Applique Emb CrocheLot Of 19 Vintage Handkerchiefs Some Embroidered, Floral & Many Other DesignsVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Christmas PoinsettiaLot 72 Vintage Christmas Handkerchiefs Hankies - Washed & Pressed Some W TagsLot Of 62 Vintage Women's Handkerchiefs6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Aqua Floral 1950s Era LotVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Christmas PoinsettiaLot Of 52 Vintage Handkerchiefs W Tatting And Crochet Edges & Satin Hankie BagLot 40 Handkerchiefs Linen-lace-embroidery-crochetVintage Carl Tait Linen Christmas Handkerchief Hankie Santa's Reindeer8" Rare Antique Vintage Cotton Dionne Quintuplets Child Hanky Handkerchief200 Vintage Hanky Lot Collectible Holiday 1959 Calendar Children Zodiac FloralsVintage Lot 65 Cutter Craft Hankies Handkerchiefs Floral Embroider TattedLot Of 33 Vintage Womens Hankies12 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief Embroidered Drawnwork White BridesLot Of Vintage Womens Handkerchiefs Floral/edged/lace (lot Of 15)-rare- 1950's -desi Arnaz- Vintage Owned Monogram Handkerchief - I Love Lucy!Lot Of 8 Vtg Christmas Hankies ~ The Good, The Sad, And The Not Too Bad HankiesVintage Christmas Hankie Lot Of 5Lot Of 5 Vintage St. Patrick's Shamrock Cotton Hankies Handkerchiefs6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Purple Floral 1950s Era LotLot 30 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs Linen Embroidery Lace Tatting Hem100+ Vtg Hankie Lot Variety FlowersVintage Chessie,peake And Kittens Tabby Cats Hanky Railroad Linen Hand Rolled10 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Crochet Lace Lot Linen Estate Vintage Christmas Handkerchief19th Cent. Wedding Handkerchief Hand Made Needle Lace W/ Cluny-type WheatearsLot Of 25 Vintage Floral & Print Hankies Handkerchiefs Good ConditionVintage Lot Of 18 "estate" Handkerchiefs, Hankies-10 Floral, 6 Crochet Edge EtcVintage Peg Thomas Tammis Keefe Hankie~ Elephants~tigers~hand RolledVintage Carl Tait Linen Christmas Handkerchief Hankie The Stockings Are Hung EucVintage Lot 25 Embroidered Linen Lace Silk Handkerchief Ladies Hankies6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Pink Floral 1950s Era Lot6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Gray Floral 1950s Era LotVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Christmas PoinsettiaVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Christmas PoinsettiaLot Of 16 Vintage Handkerchiefs Ladies Hankies Lace White Floral Monogram Men Vintage Handkerchiefs Floral Flower Cotton Antique Fine Pristine Lot 45++ SweetVintage Lot 8 Fancy Christmas Hankies/hankerchiefsVintage Washfast Colors Dark Green 100% Cotton Bandana HandkerchiefVintage Ladies Hankies. Lot Of 7 Various Floral Design6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Brown Floral 1950s Era LotVintage Hankies Ladies' Women Accessories Lot Of 205 White Ivory Tatted Lace Variety Of Hankies HandkerchiefsLot Of 2 Vtg Child's Hankies For Christmas ~ Children's Hankies For The Holiday2 Christmas Poinsettias Ladies' Hankie/handkerchiefVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Christmas PoinsettiaVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Colorful Flowers, Signed By ColetteVintage Christmas Holiday Hankie With Poinsettias Red FlowersVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Colorful Flowers, Signed By ColetteVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Perfect Purple Petit Point Violets Sheer Hand Roll26 Flawed Vintage Hankies Ladies Handkerchiefs Assorted Lot Vintage Handkerchief With Snowmen, Christmas Trees, Wreaths, Stockings, And More45 Vintage Ladies Hankies Floral, Embroidered, Christmas Handkerchiefs