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    

Vintage Ralph Lauren Polo Equestrian Silk Womens Scarf Hankerchief95 Vtg Antique Hanky Lot Floral Crochet Dressed Cat Monogram S Embroidered CraftBeautiful Mixed Lot Of 26 Vintage Ladies Hankies HankerchiefsVintage Marghab Lady's Handkerchief Early Spring #886Lot Of 38 Vintage Hankies-linen, Cotton, Embroidered, Floral, Crocheted++12 Ladies Hankies Lot Vintage FlowersVery Nice~ Floral Pattern's ~ Vintage Hanky Lot Of 21~ Various Sizes & ColorsVintage Handkerchief Lot 97 Assorted Hankies Linen,silk, Cotton Chiffon,holidayLot Of 19 Vintage Embroidered Lace Fancy White Handkerchiefs Ladies Hankies Nos Lot Of 14 Vintage Women’s Handkerchiefs, Bride Hankies3 Vintage Mens White Irish Linen Hand Rolled Handkerchiefs Mint In Box 17.5x18Vintage 50's Floral Handkerchief Lot~12 Hankies~cotton~embroidered~scallopedVintage Hankies - Ladies Print & Embroidery - Lot Of 15+Lot Of 15 - Vintage Women's Handkerchiefs Various Patterns - HankiesLot Of 21 Vintage Hankies Handkerchiefs - Mixed Lot36 Handkerchiefs Mostly Vintage, Children's, Florals, Embroidered, Valentine69 Vtg Hankies ~ Plain, Floral, Holiday, Wedding, Childrens, Embroidered, BoxedHuge Vintage Lot Of White Antique White Ladies Hankies Wedding6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief All Green Floral 50s Era Estate Lot24 Vintage Hankies Lot Lace Flowers Souvenir AnimalsVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Collectable Vintage Handkerchiefs Hand Towels Scarf Embroidery Applique HandmadeBig Lot Of 10 Vintage Ladies Hanky Hankies Linen Sheers Hand CrochetVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Tag Madeira Monogram L Pink Embroidery Hand RollVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Monogram E White Embroidery Linen Hand RollVintage Ladies Hankie Unused 1953 Calendar Merry Christmas New Year Hand RollVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Striking Monogram L Pink Embroidery Hand RollVintage Hankie, New, Ladies Hankie, Designer Pat PrichardVintage Signed Carl Tait "thank You" Deer Hankerchief/hankie - 14 1/2" X 14 1/2"Vintage Lot Of 2 Smokey The Bear Fishing Is & Hiking Is Fun Child Hankies 1950sLot 7 Vintage Unused Embroidered Valentine Hankies, Burmel Lady Heritage 6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief Purple Floral 50s Era Estate Lot6 Vintage Antique Ladies Hankie Handkerchief Aqua Floral 1950s Era Estate LotVintage Ladies Hankie Unused Easter Bunny Eggs Embroidery Hand Roll SheerLot 12 Beautiful Vintage Cotton Floral Ladies Handkerchiefs/hanky's Lot Of 87 Vintage Handkerchiefs Vintage Ladies Handkerchief Hankie Finch Embroidered Bird Orange Flowers WrenBeautiful Vintage Handmade? Delicate Lace Wedding HandkerchiefVintage Ladies Linen Screen Printed Dachshund Dog Hankie H-#aVintage Monogram Hanky "v" Hand Embroidered Initial Handkerchief Wedding3 Vintage Embroidered Boxed Lace Floral Handkerchief Hanky Orig. BoxLot Of 16 Vintage Ladies Hankies~handkerchiefs--flowersLot Of 7 Vintage Cotton Ladies Embroidered Hankies All WhiteVintage Black Linen W Pink Tiger Lilies In Each Corner Hanky Handkerchief 6 Vintage Ladies' Handkerchiefs... Floral Patterns, Reds, PinksLadies Vintage Unused Hankie Yellow Florals With Scalloped Hem Polka DotsMixed Vintage Lot Of Handkerchiefs 40's-70's 119 PiecesGreat! Vtg Bandana Lot Of 20 Usa Made Bandanas - Elephant Trunk, Tiger, Etc.Two (2) Vintage Tiger Brand Blue Bandanas Nos Deadstock Wash Fast Color Wpl9939Vintage Tammis Keefe Print Handkerchief John Wanamaker Eagle, Philadelphia, Exc!Vintage Handkerchief Novelty How To Give Up Smoking Dessin Depose Funny GraphicsVintage Madeira Hand Embroidery Linen Handkerchiefs Lot Of 6Vintage Ladies Hankie Unused Madeira Embroidery Pink Green DetailsVintagepure Irish Linen Men’s Handkerchiefs, Nib 2 PackVintage Ranshaw State Hankie Mississippi Souvenir Map Estate HandkerchiefVintage Assorted Unused Children's And Women's Cloth Handkerchiefs - Mid CenturyLovely Lot 5 Vintage Child Hankies SignedVtg. Set Of Four Fancy Hankies~crochet.16 X 15, 2@14", 12" X 11.5"Antique Embroidered Monogram R Reticella Lace Hankie White Rolled Hem Cttn LawnLadies 6 Pk Pure Irish Linen Hankies~unused Store Stock W/label~perfect~clean