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Video Transcript, Citations, and Credits

Ladies Handkerchiefs-they’re more than just blowing your nose


Legend says that Marie Antoinette invented the pocket handkerchief due to her misery of having to leave her homeland of Austria at the tender age of 14 to marry Louis the XVI of France---she cried all the way there.  Having nothing to dry her tears she tore pieces of lace from her dress to dry her eyes. From that point forward, allegedly, she always carried a piece of lace with her in case sadness struck.


That’s a great story but come on, there’s no way that no one hadn’t used something to dry their eyes prior to 1770.


The first written records of what could be considered a handkerchief dates back to the 1st century AD by the Roman poet, Catullus and it was called a sudarium- from the Latin meaning  “to shield or veil the face and mouth and to wipe off sweat” and it would be tucked into the toga.  The timing here is very important- by the 1st century AD all economic classes- the middle and lower would have been using them as access to Egyptian linen was cheaper due to the expansion of the Roman Empire. Prior to the 1st century AD Egyptian linen would have only been afforded by the upper class.  The handkerchiefs became popularly used in Roman society and the dropping of one signaled the start of chariot races. 


As time progressed into the Middle Ages the handkerchiefs were still used by the elite classes. King Richard II of England was said to have used square pieces of cloth to wipe his nose. During the Renaissance- the next major time period of note- handkerchiefs were used for hygiene purposes they would be perfumed to ward off unwanted smells, and revived fainted owners from fatigue but became fashion accessories for the wealthy - this was a fad that spread much like the art from Italy to Germany and France.  Handkerchiefs during this time (the 16th century or 1500s) among the wealthy became very ornate and elegant with handmade lace, ornamented with gems and would be shown off by being carried in hand.  For example in 1504, Gabrielle d'Estrees added to the magnificence of her attire on one occasion by carrying a handkerchief worth 1900 francs” which was incredibly exorbitant for the time.


In the court of Elizabeth I of England handkerchiefs were meant to show prosperity and status.  She received them as New Year's gifts from her subjects. Elizabeth supposedly carried hankies with gold and silver thread and had an entire vocabulary of gestures for dealing with staff. 


Shakespeare even gets in the handkerchief game with Othello and his true love’s fidelity - 

Iago says “Nay, buy be wise: yet we see nothing done; she may be honest yet. Tell me this, Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief spotted with strawberries in your wife’s hand?

Othello responds “ I gave her such a one; ‘twas my first gift: fine linen, cambric or lawn cloth with embroidery or lace along the edge.


But what about Marie Antoinette- is any of her story true? Actually, handkerchiefs were actually rather important to Marie.  Up until 1785, handkerchiefs came in all different shapes, circles, squares, triangles and sizes. One day, at the palace of Versailles, Marie remarked that the squared handkerchief was “more aesthetically pleasing and convenient”. King Louis XVI wanting to keep his wife happy- you know the saying -- “Happy Wife, Happy Life”  issued a decree on June 2, 1785 ordering that handkerchiefs produced in France had to be equal in width.


By the 18th and 19th century fashion plates show fashionable ladies clutching cloth in their hands, however, it’s not always clear if it's a pocket handkerchief or just a kerchief which was becoming a style trend that was used to cover a lady’s neck and bosom for modesty.


In the 1920s women began to personally embroider their hankies with flowers and other decorations while men carried the standard white handkerchiefs. You could use your hankie to signal someone you’d like to meet him/her or give it away as a token of affection. For ladies the hankie at this point becomes more of a fashion implement than a hygiene tool.  


In the 1920s Kleenex was invented in the 1920s and originally billed as a face towel to remove cold cream BUT by the 1930s their new slogan became “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket”. This eliminated the school ritual of Show and Blow of the 1800s where children were required to bring a clean hankie to school daily.  Moms would give their children 2 hankies- one white one for “show” and one for “blow” usually made out of calico material and kept in a different pocket.


By the 1930s rolled around and the Great Depression hit pretty much the only new item a woman might be able to afford to enhance her wardrobe was a handkerchief- change your outfit by changing your hankie.


In the World War II era women forgo their silk stocking so the troops had parachutes, women built up their wardrobe of hankies.  They cost .05 to .50 and wore them in their breast pockets or draped over a belt as a fashion accessory.  Handkerchief of the month was advertised in Vogue magazine and with the advent of color fast dyes allowed artists to depict flowers to cocktail recipes!  You could even celebrate holidays by giving handkerchiefs and they were sold in special gift cards.   Kerchiefs were imprinted with maps of the countryside where bombing missions were carried out- if they were shot down it acted as an escape map.  In both WWI and WW2 soldiers were given hankies to carry and/or give as mementos. 


After WW2 designers like Christian Dior used hankies as a final touch to their haute couture- tied to the wrist, threaded through the top buttonhole of a suit or pop from the side pocket of a handbag.


In more recent times vintage handkerchiefs have become collectible items, they can also be used to decorate windows, framed, and I have even seen them sewn together into parasols.




Anastasia. “Lady's Accessory: History of Handkerchief.” Tea with Anastasia, 1 Jan. 1970, 

“Handkerchief History.” Handkerchief Heroes, 7 Mar. 2016, 

“Handkerchiefs Were Made Square by Law - The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939) - 3 Sep 1936.” Trove, 

“The History of a Lady's Handkerchief.” Bobby Pin Blog / Vintage Hair and Makeup Tips and Tutorials, 21 Nov. 2019,


Host: Heather Brown

Shakespeare read by: Tom Simonetti

Video and Editing: Kayleigh Mihalko



Produced with a grant from the Valley Community Foundation


©2021 Seymour Historical Society

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