We have all heard the old adage, “Ladies don’t sweat, they glisten.” Well, the dog days of summer are upon us, and glistening has become routine. A handkerchief, that most basic of accessories, has long served the purpose of dabbing a dampened brow. But the full span of its historical significance bears examination.
Handkerchiefs are believed to date back to China circa 1000 B.C. where they were used as head coverings to ward off the sun’s harsh rays. In Roman times, the drop of a handkerchief signaled the start of a chariot race. In the Middle Ages, a knight would don his lady’s handkerchief for good fortune in battle. Handkerchiefs varied in design from plain to exquisite. In the 18th century, handkerchiefs became signifiers of wealth, and King Louis XVI is said to have prohibited by law that anyone carry a handkerchief larger than his own. Hankies were often treasured possessions, exhibiting intricate embroidery and possessing great sentimental value. Historical evidence reveals hankies being included in dowries, bequeathed in wills, and reported as “missing” in official police documents.
In the 19th century, handkerchiefs were incorporated into the subtle art of flirtation. The way in which a woman handled her handkerchief spoke volumes:
Drawing it across the cheek… “I love you.”
Drawing it across the eyes… “I am sorry.”
Drawing it across the forehead… “Be careful, we are being watched.”
Drawing it through the hands… “I hate you.”
Drawing it across the lips… “We should meet.”
Dropping it… “We should be friends.”
Folding it… “I wish to speak with you.”
Winding it around the middle finger… “I am married.”
Holding it over the shoulder… “Follow me.”
In his 1877 publication “Secrets of Life Unveiled,” Daniel R. Shafer wrote, “The handkerchief, among lovers, is used in a different manner than its legitimate purpose. The most delicate hints can be given without danger of misunderstanding, and in ‘flirtations’ it becomes a very useful instrument. It is in fact superior to the deaf and dumb alphabet, as the notice of bystanders is not attracted.”
But the language of hankies was not limited to coquetry. Queen Elizabeth I is rumored to have invented a personal code of hanky gestures, which she used to discreetly communicate with her staff.
The early 20th century witnessed the Great Depression, during which a handkerchief was often the only fashion accessory a woman could afford and the only thing that distinguished her outfit from day to day. And during the lean times of WWII, a woman would tuck a colorful hanky into a breast pocket, buttonhole, or beltloop to add a bit of cheer to the drab. Soldiers often wore hankies around their necks with maps of their bombs sites printed on the inside so that if they were shot down, they would be able to navigate enemy territory by foot. Handkerchiefs were also exchanged between soldiers and their loved ones, as tokens of remembrance, consolation, and enduring affection during prolonged periods of separation and anxiety.
Handkerchiefs fell out of favor in the 1950s with the popularization of Kleenex. The disposable tissue brand rolled out a strong marketing campaign under the slogan “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket.” While pocket pouches of tissue may have dethroned the hanky, we still value the comforting utility of an old-fashioned handkerchief: cotton softened over countless washes, charming faded prints, the faint scent of a loved one’s perfume clinging to the threads. Kleenex has its place, but I’ll always opt for the hanky.
“Handkerchief History.” Handkerchief Heroes. <http://handkerchiefheroes.com/home/>.
“Handkerchiefs & Flirting language.” History of the 18th & 19th Centuries. 14 Feb. 2014. <http://18thcand19thc.blogspot.com/2014/02/handkerchiefs-and-flirting-language.html>.