Ok, I will admit that I love hankies…Well, maybe I am obsessed with them; the colors, the designs, and the rich history behind them keep me wondering who owned the hankie I am holding before me. I love the opportunity as a zero waste designer to upcycle with unique fabrics like vintage tablecloths, fabrics, and denim; honestly, anything that resembles a vintage fabric falls into my wheelhouse of creation. Hankies though are somewhat special to me. They are so delicate and pretty and the opportunity to turn them into sleeves, pockets and so much more is very exciting for me. That said, I am always wondering about the history behind the things that I love, and I enjoy sharing that research and knowledge with others as well.

                                                  *Image from Pinterest*

The history of hankies starts in 1377, when King Richard the II of England, who, according to Wikipedia “reigned from 1377 to 1399, is widely believed to have invented the cloth handkerchief, as surviving documents were written by his courtiers describe his use of square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose.”

However, Archaeological evidence from China from 1000 BC shows figurines from the Chou dynasty holding pieces of cloth. I am certain that the purpose was very practical; wiping the brow, protection from the sun, etc. Using the handkerchief to blow one’s nose did not start happening until the 15th century! Men kept handkerchiefs in their hats, while women kept them in their cleavage. The most fascinating bit of information I found was that hankies were a symbol of love; when a girl threw a handkerchief from her window for her intended purpose, it was a declaration of love. If he picked it up it meant he loved her back. Other romantic signals and gestures include:  Burning a handkerchief in one corner indicated passionate love, holding a handkerchief from the middle, and showing it to her lover meant ” I am waiting for you”. Different colored handkerchiefs had different meanings, such as white, which meant “I love you”, Purple ” I like you”, and so forth.  Perhaps hankies were the tinder of those times? It seems that handkerchiefs symbolized many major moments in one’s life: a bride’s deep joy, a widow’s anguish, etc. They were also once considered so valuable, that they were listed in dowries and bequeathed in wills.  The meanings of handkerchiefs and how they were used are simply endless.

                                                              *Image from Pinterest*

By the 20th century, handkerchiefs were ubiquitous; everyone, everywhere had them. During the depression in the 1930s, the only part of a wardrobe that a woman could afford to change often was a handkerchief, so the women would embellish their outfits by changing out their handkerchief. Fast forward to the 1950s and there was so much liberty that artists took with creating such fun conversation starter designs, from palmistry, astrology, card game rules, recipes, maps, nursery rhymes, fashionable ladies, and much more. 

                                                  *Image from Pinterest*

I know that I have only touched the surface of the grand history of handkerchiefs, but one must stop somewhere, right?  It is a shame that we no longer use these square beauties in the myriad of beautiful ways they were once used, but I will continue to collect and enjoy them.


Erin Bass

*Fashion Designer * Upcycler*Girlboss*

*Erin hails from Portland, Oregon, and is a self-taught upcycled fashion designer, seamstress, and fiber artist. Want to see her work? Click here

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