“One to Blow, and One for Show” A History of Handkerchiefs

Elaine Saxton, Plank of Interest Along Road #236

Historians believe handkerchiefs were first seen in China where they were used on top of the head as sun protection.

HistoryofHankies-2During the middle ages, knights would tie a lady’s handkerchief on the back of the helmet for good luck. During the 15th century, European tradesmen returned from China with headscarves and handkerchiefs embroidered and edged with lace. Both men and women then used these hankies. In Persia, the hanky was considered a sign of nobility and reserved for kings. Aristocrats requested their hankies be included in their painted portraits to indicate status and position. Considered a symbol of wealth, hankies enlarged in size until 1785, when Louis XVI issued a decree prohibiting anyone carrying a handkerchief larger than his. Hankies became valuable property and often bequeathed in wills and listed in dowries. The tradition of borrowing a bridal hankie may have stemmed from these times when the hanky was too expensive for a young bride to afford.

Othello, the Shakespearean tragedy, found the hanky as the root of murder and suicide due to a misunderstanding. Following suit, Queen Elizabeth I created an entire vocabulary of hankie gestures for instructing her staff. In Victorian times, a whole language of flirting developed from various hanky positions. During The Great Depression, a hanky was often the only new item a woman could afford to enhance her wardrobe. As World War II raged, Vogue Magazine featured the linen hanky as a fashion accessory, as silk was needed for the war effort. The exception to the silk ban was neckerchiefs printed with survival maps worn by pilots.

HistoryofHankies-3Advertising and political campaigns also have roots in hankies; including Martha Washington’s support of her husband for president and King Edward’s abdication speech printed on the cloth.

The introduction of Kleenex in 1920 started the popular demise of the hankie as mothers wanted their children to “Not carry a cold in their pocket.” Thus the practice of carrying 2 hankies, ‘one for show and the other to blow’, died. Today’s collectibles are interesting relics made for every occasion, event, souvenir and fashion happening. Sources available upon request.