A Peak into My Personal Handkerchief Collection
History of the Handkerchief
Have you got your hanky? How many times have you heard that? My mother said it to my sister and me, and I'm sure your mother said it to you, too. I know I said it daily to my five children each morning as they went off to school and I think my long-suffering husband came in for it, too!
As I looked through my hanky treasure box, I began to wonder about the history of the handkerchief. Back in the dim, dark ages, we studied Shakespeare's 'Othello, the Moor of Venice' and perhaps you did, too. The first gift Othello gave Desdemona was a handkerchief, and much of the play centres on that gift, and ends with murder and suicide!
Way back in Greek and Roman times, handkerchiefs were used, but they did not become popular in Europe until the Middle Ages. William Shakespeare was born in 1564, and that's quite a while back, but it's around that time that the handkerchief became a fashion statement in Europe.
The first person recorded at that time to have used a cloth for wiping his nose was Richard II, whose life was also dramatised by Shakespeare in 'The Life and Death of King Richard II' and he lived in the 1300s!
In Europe, the handkerchief mostly began as a kerchief, for covering the head, so it was close at hand when something was needed for many purposes. We still use it as a kerchief, but also—shall I say it? For dusting off our shoes, for tying up small things, so we won't lose them, to dab a wound, to bandage a sore finger.. the list goes on.
- The fabrics used: Probably long ago, most handkerchiefs were made of squares of linen, but then other materials were used, including silk and cotton.
- Handkerchiefs are healthy: When soaked in salty water or disinfectant after use, and ironed with a hot iron, handkerchiefs do not spread germs around.
- Handkerchiefs are environmentally friendly: They can be used again and again and are not left lying around in bins or on the floor as litter, as often occurs with tissues.
- Can be used as a Fashion Statement: There are several ways to fold a handkerchief, and it's quite an art, especially when used in the top pocket of a man's suit.
My Personal Collection
I have a collection of hankies that have quite a history in my life.
I have a dim remembrance of the Great Depression, and my mother making and hand-hemming 'everyday' hankies from worn pillow-slips and old sheets, but the first in my collection is the tiny silk one pictured above. When I was about three years old I began in the Kindergarten of a private school, and I remember that it was given to me to keep in my pocket at my first 'Speech Night and Prize Giving' at the end of the year. For some reason I also connect it with a little silk Union Jack I was given to wave on the exciting occasion of the Coronation of King George VI on 11 December 1936.
A Prize Winner's Hanky
The next hanky in my treasure box was from the war-time. We had moved from the Bayside into Melbourne (Australia) to save petrol. One month our school held a competition for the biggest potato. All the potatoes were to go to the local Hospital to help feed the patients.
I can't remember how big my spud was, but it didn't come out of Dad's vegetable garden that supplied much of our needs, but from the local green-grocer and weighed quite a bit.
My prize was two handkerchiefs, a green and a blue, with my initials on them. I was so proud of those hankies from the taties! I only have one left now, and much of it is in tatters.
A Special Gift From My Father
Dad was not much of a gift-giver—he usually left that to Mothe— but the year I turned fourteen he gave me a handkerchief and a pair of stockings. Both were special, as we usually wore either woollen stockings in the winter or lisle in the summer. It was a real grown-up gift as well as a big surprise.
Handkerchiefs as Fashion Accessories
In my late teens, when I had graduated from school I was in College. It was great fun learning to be a teacher with new friends.
Where we had worn ties with our school uniform, it became the fashion to pin a bright handkerchief on our shirts. This seems to be the only one that has survived. I think it was made of one of the early man-made fabrics, rayon.
Which do you prefer?
A Wedding Handkerchief
This handkerchief was chosen by my mother for me to carry at my wedding. I almost needed it, too! It wasn't the bride who was late, as our home was next-door but one to the church, but my fiancé, who was supposed to drop off the bouquets without seeing me, did not turn up when expected. I was becoming more nervous by the minute and it's lucky that handkerchief isn't in shreds. I was sure he had changed his mind.
Eventually, he arrived—half an hour late! Our Best Man had only been married for two weeks, and his wife had overslept.
My Mother's Hanky
This hanky was my Grandmother's, and could well have been my Great-Grandmother's; she died in 1922 in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia.
When my Grandmother died in June 1948, it became my mother's, and when she died in 1982, it became mine.
Hanky With a History
There's an interesting story attached to this handkerchief. Some years ago I was told it was at least 130 years old - and that was about 18 years ago! My husband and I had retired and he was invited to speak at a church in Woodend (Victoria, Australia). Later, a lady who lived next to the church came to speak to him. She had seen his name and wanted to return a handkerchief. Her family had lived near my husband's family in Elsternwick and when her daughter, I think her name was Vera, was to be married, my Mother-in-law wanted to give her something, but had come from England, intending to return, and did not have much. The only thing the bride needed was 'Something Borrowed', so the offer worked well.
My Mother-in-law's treasured handkerchief was carried for the wedding, but not returned until many years later. Sadly, she had died, so my husband kept it.
Oh, dear, where did I put my hanky? No hanky-panky now, it was in that pocket!