Handkerchief History

By Terry Quillen


Old hankies are steeped in tradition and quaint in their beauty. Whether drying tears or caring for a sniffly nose, they are a symbol of comfort. They are a sentimental gift. They are a lady's truest companion.


But in their earliest days, handkerchiefs were a symbol of snobbery.


In Europe of the 1500s, hankies were "another way for aristocrats to distinguish themselves from grubby peasants, who blew their noses on their sleeves and sneezed into their hats," according to Collector’s Weekly. “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."


Over the centuries, hankies evolved into flirtatious accessories, "expressing emotion in a tantalizing way, almost like flashing an undergarment," as Collector's Weekly notes.


By the 1900s, textile-printing techniques took the beauty of the handkerchief to new levels so that many old print hankies, like the ones pictured above right, are available today at GasLamp and GasLamp Too. Their colors are still vibrant, thanks to the care that our female forbears took with them. Such hankies make a nice hostess gift, like the three at top left, set off by a dainty pair of Asian slippers (GasLamp Booth S-104); or the patriotic trio at top right (from a large collection in GasLamp Booth B-232); or the pair at the bottom (GasLamp Too Booth T-292).

A favorite color scheme for old hankies is complementary purple and yellow, as seen in this selection, all from GasLamp, photo left (top left, Booth B232; top right and at bottom, from Booth S-104).


There are many themes popular with today's collector: florals, of course, but also holidays, American states, children's, commemorative and more. Many are round and some are scalloped around the edge, following the shape of a bouquet or a bloom.


Florals dominate, and it is no wonder. They are sentimental, rich in color, and an apt substitute for the real thing. In frugal times, a flowery hankie pinned to a woman's bodice could take the place of a costly corsage.


Over the years, I have been especially drawn to round hankies. I began to find the same round rose motif, in a variety of color schemes, including the unusual brown and pink one (photo, right). Blue roses were particularly popular on old hankies.


Nothing is more fun to collect, though, than the holiday-themed hankies. There is a vast collection of Christmas designs in Booth B-232 at GasLamp, as pictured in the photo, left.


Valentine's Day is also a popular motif. It's not hard to imagine them as a gift from a bashful suitor or an adoring student. The ones from my collection, at right, are put away until my granddaughter, Zoë, is old enough to start receiving them each year, tucked inside of her Valentine from NaNa.


Even St. Patrick's Day hankies can be found if you look hard enough. I have picked up several over the years, and I used one to make the skirt of a German half-doll pincushion, below left.


If there is one thing that makes any hankie special, it is the tears it is used to wipe away. If you are looking for a sweet gesture of sympathy, take an old hankie to the funeral home for a grieving friend.


The two most special hankies in my collection are pictured, below right. I carried the pink one when we buried our mother and the purple one when we laid our dad to rest.


It has been said that Kimberly-Clark made hankies obsolete when they introduced their Kleenex tissues in the 1930s. I would beg to differ.



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