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The Handkerchief

Updated on January 10, 2017

The handkerchief for mopping the brow and wiping the nose is felt to be a necessity by most civilized people. The Romans are known to have used such a napkin made, as it still is, of linen, but when their Empire collapsed such refinements vanished for nearly a thousand years. The Anglo-Saxons had a 'swat-cloth' - i.e. sweat-cloth (Latin: manipulus) - and under the name of maniple a similar piece of material survived in the services of the Church, but its form became gradually altered until in the end it bore little resemblance to its cousin, the handkerchief. That the handkerchief was not in common use in the late Middle Ages is plain from ecclesiastical remonstrances against priests who blew their noses on their surplices and chasubles.

Early in the sixteenth century we begin to meet with handkerchiefs under that name, but their use was entirely confined to the upper classes. They were carried ostentatiously in the hand, and some of them were extremely rich. Henry VIII used 'handkerchers of Holland frynged with Venice gold, redd and white silk'; and he had others fringed with gold and silver. Among the gifts to Queen Mary Tudor, for New Year 1556, were 'six handkerchers edged with passamayne of golde and silke' presented by Mrs Penne, nurse to the late King Edward VI.

By the end of the century no fine lady or gentleman could be content without a handkerchief. We learn that 'Maydes and gentlewomen gave to their favourites, as tokens of their love, little handkerchiefs of about three or four inches square, wrought round with a button at each corner'. Some scholars have suggested that these buttons were, in fact, tassels, but their use was sufficiently general for 'handkerchief buttons' to be a street cry in London in the reign of Charles I. They are mentioned again as a prohibited import in the time of Charles II.

The seventeenth century is pre-eminently the time of lace. Both men and women wore immense quantities at the throat and wrists, and even round the tops of boots. It would have been strange if handkerchiefs had not been influenced by the prevailing fashion. They were indeed surrounded by deep borders of lace and were sometimes extremely costly. When lost they were advertised for and rewards offered for their recovery. The London Gazette of December 1672 has the entry: 'Lost, a lawn pocket handkercher, with a broad hem, laced round with fine point lace, about four fingers broad, marked with an R in red silk.' The poorer classes, if they had handkerchiefs at all, had them made of coarser materials such as holland or calico.

In the eighteenth century the almost universal use of snuff offered many opportunities for the display of fine handkerchiefs, and their proper manipulation was considered a mark of breeding. In the nineteenth century the use of the handkerchief spread to all classes. The twentieth, after the First World War, saw a curious revival of the handkerchief as a decorative accessory. The breast pocket of men's suits was now made on the outside, and it was fashionable to show a protruding handkerchief which was sometimes coloured to match the tie. In this case another handkerchief - for use - was carried in another pocket.

In our time cloth handkerchiefs are giving way on the scores of economy and hygiene to soft paper handkerchiefs purchased in the packet and used only for colds in the nose or drying wet eyes during a soppy movie.


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