The History of the Habitually Handy Handkerchief

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet while holding a handkerchief
Image credit: Library of Congress / No known copyright restrictions

While there are a great many things to like about autumn — jumpers, jackets, fall colours — there are certainly some downsides too. If you have a garden, there can be rather a lot of leaves to contend with. All the jack-o’-lanterns must be a nightmare if you’re scared of pumpkins (that’s cucurbitophobia for the fear fans out there). And, if you have a nose and an immune system that’s not up to snuff, you’ll likely find yourself sniffing and blowing your way through the grimmer bits of cold and flu season. 

Luckily, the handkerchief is there to help. I started carrying cotton handkerchiefs and bandanas with me everywhere I went a few years ago, not so much for blowing my nose or wiping my brow, but rather because it dawned on me at some point just how often I need a surplice length of cloth. I regularly use them for cleaning my glasses, dabbing at stains, mopping up spills, and, perhaps most often of all, brushing rainwater off of public benches before sitting down (In half a decade of living here, I have yet to find I dry park bench in all of Scotland)

Growing up, I remember all of my grandparents carrying cloth handkerchiefs as a matter of course. My father did the same, and I recall even as a child enjoying the sight of a pile of hankies that had been freshly laundered, ironed, and folded. There was an old-world charm to them that has stuck with me and no doubt accounts for a predisposition toward carrying my own. 

Of course, not everyone is a fan. The humble hanky’s various nicknames — snot rag, nose-wiper, sneezer, muckender — give a sense of its intended use but also of its social standing. The handkerchief’s retreat from public life (a process kicked off by the introduction of Kleenex’s disposable tissues in 1924) is also indicated by the sheer number of other now-defunct synonyms. These include, among others, ‘clout’, ‘fogle’, ‘mouchoir’, ‘pullicate’, and, my personal favourite, ‘monteith’, which is a hanky featuring a pattern of white spots on a coloured background. 

Baseball player Lou Gehrig using a handkerchief
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

Given its simple design and multifarious uses, the handy hank has been with us in one form or another for millennia and its history can be hard to trace precisely. Small squares made of silk or linen were first referenced circa 2000 BC in Egypt where they were dipped in perfume as a means of warding off the unpleasant scents of urban life. It was a practice carried out by rich citizens which would be replicated across the Middle East and Europe in later centuries. 

Handkerchiefs were mentioned by the Roman poet Catullus in the first century BC. A similar piece of material called an orarium was dropped at the Circus Maximus and Colosseum to signal the start of chariot races and gladiatorial bouts while onlooking spectators waved their own cloths in appreciation. 

The invention of the handkerchief as we know it is typically credited to Richard II, famed, among other things, for his opulent dress and runny nose. This sparked a trend in his court that soon caught on throughout Britain and Europe for both its practical and decorative purposes. Shakespeare, of course, would come to shape public opinion of Richard II in his eponymous play about the king, but it’s in another of The Bard’s plays that a handkerchief takes centre stage. In Othello, a handkerchief given by the titular character to Desdemona as a love token only to be stolen and planted in another man’s lodgings by Iago, is used to fuel Othello’s legendary jealousy and distrust. 

Themes of love and romance, as it happens, occur throughout the hanky’s history. Ones with embroidered messages were once a common exchange between lovers and handkerchiefs are still common wedding favours today. Courtly knights used to wear a lady’s handkerchief as a symbol of having won her favour, while in the Renaissance a highly codified love language developed, particularly as practised by women. As Ben St George put it over at The Rake:

‘Drawing a square — called a fazzoletto at the time — across one’s cheek in conversation would signal an unspoken desire, whilst drawing one through one’s hands signalled revulsion or resentment. Women of the upper class seeking to, shall we say, enhance their assets would sometimes use their handkerchiefs to add extra volume to their bodice. This handkerchief stuffing, however, had a tendency to move about, creating some uneven and decidedly less than natural curves over the course of a day’s wear.’

Handkerchiefs as markers of wealth are another common theme. Since fine fabric and sweet perfume were only available to the wealthiest denizens of ancient times, ornamental handkerchiefs have been signs of status for centuries. The practice extended into Elizabethan Britain and perhaps reached its apex in pre-revolutionary France and, given the elaborate decoration and costly materials typically used — including silk, lace, pearls, and gold and silver thread — sumptuary laws were enacted in some cases to try to curb excesses.

In time, however, the advent of industrial production and the widespread use of colourfast dyes turned handkerchiefs into more commonplace and affordable objects. It also meant that printed hankies turned up in more unexpected contexts, ranging from WWII pilots outfitted with maps of enemy territory printed on silk cloth in case they were shot down, all the way to political campaigners disseminating printed handkerchiefs as campaign tokens.

Bing Crosby wearing a white pocket handkerchief
Image credit: Paramount Pictures / CC BY-SA 4.0

In its more recent history, the handkerchief also saw a branching off of the more dainty pocket square. Italians have enacted a one-for-blow, one-for-show principle dating back as far as the Renaissance by distinguishing between the aforementioned fancy ‘fazzoletto’ and more humble, day-to-day ‘drapesello’. It was only around the late nineteenth century that the pocket square took off thanks to the ascendancy of two-piece suits. Exactly why this happened remains the cause of some debate, but perhaps the most convincing theory holds that it was a means of keeping one’s public-facing handkerchief away from the grubby coins and smoking accoutrements kept in the hip pockets. Instead, it was safely stowed further north, perhaps with the odd corner occasionally peaking out. Gradually, this became a fashion unto itself.

If you do carry a more workaday handkerchief in the present day, be sure to take a cue from these foppish forerunners and keep it as clean as possible at all times. Nothing is bound to have your companions turning away from you in disgust with perfumed cloths at their noses than the sight of a grubby hanky in a public setting. A fresh handkerchief can be a godsend; a soiled one is always a scourge.