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.