Friday, January 11, 2013

The Lost Handkerchief

It started innocently enough --  when I found something I had misplaced. It was a handkerchief given me by my cousin Becky almost a year ago.

I had searched for the handkerchief, but today when I put my hand into my coat pocket, there it was. Apparently I have not worn the coat since the day Becky gave me the hanky.

Looking at the pure white cotton handkerchief embroidered with flowers and a hand-crocheted edging got me to thinking about my other handkerchiefs. Because, you see, I have quite a collection of them. Most were little gifts to me during my childhood. Our grandmother always gave her grandchildren handkerchiefs for Christmas and birthdays. As well, they were the gift of choice for the drawing of names at Christmas in grade school. And I also received some from other people as well.

Thus began two searches: One, to locate my handkerchiefs; and two, to learn more about the  handkerchief's history.
google image

I began my search for my handkerchiefs hours ago but alas, have not found them. I’m sure I placed them in a location where I’d be sure to find them, but this has not been the case. I’ll continue my search tomorrow.

I found out some interesting tidbits about these hemmed squares of thin fabric that can be carried in the pocket or purse, and which are intended for personal hygiene purposes such as wiping one's hands or face, or blowing one's nose. A handkerchief is also sometimes used as a purely decorative accessory in a suit pocket.

When I was young I carried a handkerchief to school each day, into which my mother knotted my lunch money in one corner. And of course, back then they were used to wipe noses. Kleenex would not make their appearance in our household for several years.

  • Some sources report the use of handkerchiefs as far back as Classical Greece, the Roman Empire and in the Byzantine era.
  • Another source credits Richard II of England, who reigned from 1377 to 1399, as the inventor of the cloth handkerchief, as surviving documents written by his courtiers describe his use of square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose. Certainly they were in existence by Shakespeare's time, and a handkerchief is an important plot device in his play Othello.
  • Yet another source reports the handkerchief had its origin in Italy when a Venetian lady made one from pure flax and decorated it with lace.The handkerchief then made its way to France, where those associated with Henry II were curious about this new clothing accessory. It was a huge success with the Lords and Ladies. Handkerchiefs were made with expensive fabrics, adorned with embroidery and looked upon as objects of great luxury.
  • By 1850, the handkerchief made its way to Germany. Here it was used only by royalty and aristocracy.
  • Handkerchief flirtation by ladies: In past times when women were not allowed to talk to a stranger, handkerchiefs were  a means of communication, as ladies would drop these precious pieces of lace on the sidewalk whenever they wanted to attract the attention of a gentleman. Gentlemen were of course extremely flattered to pick them up and give them back to their owners.
  • By the 1900's the handkerchief as we know it made its way to United States.  No discerning gentleman would leave home without a pocket square made of cotton, linen or silk.Throughout history, the use of white handkerchiefs as flags became a popular way to surrender. They were waved high in the air to show intentions of truce.
  • The use of a cloth handkerchief is today mainly considered old-fashioned or unhygienic, or both, mainly due to the popularization of disposable paper handkerchiefs and the fact that they are stored in a pocket or a purse after being used.
  • An interesting side note:  Kleenex was originally marketed for the purpose of removing makeup, but when people began using them to blow their noses, the marketing strategy changed and the rest is history.
  • In Spanish football or in bullfighting, it is a common sight to see supporters waving white handkerchiefs as an expression of deep emotion. It is used both positively, in admiration of an exceptional performance by a team or player, or as a negative sign of disgust at an especially bad performance.
  • Handkerchiefs are commonly used by soldiers, campers, hunters, and other outdoorsmen.
  • They can be used as a bandage, tourniquet, arm sling, to tie on splints, gag and secure prisoners.
  • The wearing of various colored bandanas around the neck was common in the mid- and late-nineteenth century among cowboys, steam railroad engineers, and miners in the Western United States.
  • Now here’s something that was totally unknown to me: The handkerchief code (also known as the hanky code, the bandana code and flagging) is a color-coded system used among the gay males.
  • It is thought that the wearing of bandanas by gay men originated in San Francisco after the Gold Rush, when, because of a shortage of women, men dancing with each other in square dances developed a code wherein the man wearing the blue bandana took the male part in the square dance, and the man wearing the red bandana took the female part (these bandanas were usually worn around the arm or hanging from the belt or in the back pocket of one's jeans).
  • It is thought that the modern hanky code started in New York City in late 1970 or early 1971.

Well, you can see where finding a handkerchief in your coat pocket leads: Finding out more than you really wanted to know about handkerchiefs!


  1. You do interesting research work. Lots of new info for me. Over here Kleenex, being so expensive was or might still be used only for cleaning one´s eyeglasses.
    But - the modern handkerchief code, I´m all a question mark?

    1. We have the generic brands of Kleenex, which are much less expensive. Are those available there?

      The handkerchief code was all news to me as well!

  2. What a pretty handkerchief from your friend; I'm glad you found it again. My collection is small but I love a hand-crotcheted, embroidered handkerchief for special occasions. Some of my mother's have now come to me, and I enjoy tucking them into the clutch on special occasions. What fascinating research - I had no idea of most of that information. Thank you for telling us.

    1. The handkerchiefs seem to suggest a more elegant time of the past and I like to see one in a woman's handbag. Some of that information was new to me as well!

  3. I have several handkerchiefs and rarely carry one. DH on the other hand is NEVER without a hankie in his back pocket. I've yet to see him blow his nose on one. I have fond memories of seeing this big man with his big hands using his hankie to tenderly wipe the tears (or maybe ice cream) of a little child's face though.


    1. I think men have clung to the habit of taking a hanky, where women have not. Do men think it's not manly to have Kleenex in their pockets? That's a sweet memory you have of him and his hanky.

  4. At my age, the best part of posts like this is finding that the other people who I think are definitely very sharp, can lose things as easily as I can. I am always putting things in a place where I am sure I will be able to find them later, only to hunt endlessly for them. My whole family will burst out laughing when something is lost and say "Do you think Mom put it 'someplace special'?"
    I do love those beautiful handkerchiefs and all those fun facts.

    1. Always a clever comment, Beryl! You know, I have spent the today searching for those handkerchiefs and haven't found them yet! I can't imagine where I put them.

      Like you, I'm forever "hiding" things. I've been known to find gifts I bought others for Christmas in March. I need to keep a list in a book of everything I "hide."


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