Do You Have a Hankie?

By Clinton J. Holloway


That ubiquitous accoutrement of a bygone era the handkerchief is making a comeback. Once a staple fashion accessory and practical utilitarian object of personal hygiene, the cloth handkerchief is finding its way back into the breast pocket of the bespoke male and the collections of those with the ability to accessorize.

Said to have been invented in the 14th century by England’s King Richard II, the hanky was once an everyday object carried by men and women alike. In olden times a gentleman carried the hanky of his beloved into battle as a talisman and a lady waved a white handkerchief as a sign of deep emotion. 


Material and workmanship spoke of class and standing. Working class men favored the blue or red paisley bandana, the kind children and hobos prefer tying on the end of a stick to hold all of their worldly possessions when running away from home (see the September 20, 1958 “Saturday Evening Post” cover by Normal Rockwell). For the businessman a starched and ironed white handkerchief in the pocket was de rigueur, a sign of sophistication.  A dozen different folding styles gave men the opportunity for self-expression.


As with most accessories, the ladies’ options grew to near limitless possibilities by the time handkerchiefs reached their pinnacle in the 1950s and ’60s.  The use of the cloth handkerchief fell out of favor as unhygienic when disposable paper options became available. The Kleenex brand began in the 1930s to use the marketing slogan “Don’t Carry a Cold in Your Pocket.”  Today, a return to the use of cloth handkerchiefs is seen as an environmental choice.


Vintage handkerchiefs present opportunities for decorating as well as a collectible that is both useful and aesthetically pleasing. Many varieties of vintage ladies’ handkerchiefs can be found today. Higher quality Irish and Swiss linen varieties are available, often with lace or tatted edges, appliqué, embroidery and other fancy needlework. Less expensive, brightly printed options with scalloped edges were later available from Japan, China and the Philippines. Often with floral or leaf motifs, these can also be found in holiday themes. In the 1960s and early ’70s there was a popular form of greeting card that had a new handkerchief tucked inside.  


Many ladies found these dainties “too pretty to use” which is perhaps one reason they can now often be found in like-new condition. These handkerchiefs are finding their way to the crafter’s table and are being turned into various art projects. One colorful way to use them is to stitch them onto a solid background, such as a sheet, to make a quilt-like bedspread. Another idea is to employ the same method to make a shabby chic tablecloth paired with individual examples as coordinated napkins.


Filled with dried lavender and tied with coordinating ribbon, a vintage handkerchief makes a nice sachet.  A single example can be framed either folded or displayed in full. This is an especially good display option for an heirloom handkerchief or one with particularly stunning lace or needlework.


A variety of vintage handkerchiefs can be readily had today with examples appearing at estate sales in the dollar range or in several booths at Gas Lamp and Gas Lamp Too for $2 to $5 for Mid-Century examples. Older, rarer examples can command much higher prices. (The photos in this article show an assortment of men's and ladies hankies that are available in booth W-412 in the $3 to $5 range.)


Men need not feel left out of this genre as there are also masculine options to be had. Silk or polyester varieties can be found, in addition to colored or white in both linen and cotton. Another spin on the fashionable accessory is the faux “pocket square,” which was no more than a few inches of fabric stitched onto heavy paper. When inserted into the suit pocket no one was the wiser that this was not a more expensive silk variety. These faux squares were often given as an advertising premium for dry cleaners or finer men’s clothing establishments.  


Whatever hankie you choose, have a happy time collecting! 


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