The slogan, “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket,” comes from an advertisement in the 1930s by Kimberly-Clark, as Kleenex, an antidote to germs. Yet, it didn’t start out as a remedy for germs. In 1924, Kleenex advertised it as a face towel to remove cold cream. It seems customers started using it to blow their nose and dispose of it. Yes, the handkerchief was now heading for its demise.
Growing up in the 40s, no one convinced my Mom hankies were out of style. She did buy the Kleenex tissues, but we were told to use them sparingly, in order to save. Even when Mom died, we found an unopened box of floral handkerchiefs in her drawer. And they are still collectable today!
Now that the flu season is once again upon us, I thought I’d like to know more about the long, lost handkerchief.
One of the first things I found in my research was that another patent for a paper hanky was issued to Oskar Rosenfelder, of Nuremberg, Germany, in 1929. It was mass produced in the paper factory and called “Tempo.”
Japan seems to have outdone the American and German patents. They were using “hangami” (nose paper) as early as 1637. In the book, “The Travels of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia,” Peter (1600-1667) stated, “They (the Japanese) blow their noses with a certain soft and tough kind of paper which they carry about them in small pieces, which having used, they fling away as a filthy thing.”
Today, tissues seem quite ordinary, but the handkerchief itself has a long history which involved clerical attire, perspiration wiper, status symbol, etiquette, love, courtship, and more.
Our journey into handkerchiefs starts in ancient Egypt. According to David Hober’s article, “History of Pocket Squares,” by 2000 BCE, wealthy Egyptians were carrying the first true pocket squares made of bleached white linen. By the 10th century, pocket squares were embroidered and known as “Khazz.” These expensive pocket squares distinguished the wealthy Egyptian from the poor.
During Classical Greece, the wealthy used perfumed cloths called “perspirator” or “mouth cloths” to mask odors.
The first written reference to handkerchiefs comes from the Roman poet, Catullus, in the first century AD. They were called “sudaruim” (from sudor, meaning to sweat) or “oraria” (from os, meaning mouth) and were used to wipe perspiration from the face, neck, and hands by the wealthy.
]Around 250 BCE, the Roman gladiators would parade around the Coliseum, stop before the emperor, saying, “Hail Caesar, they who will die, salute you.” The Emperor would then drop his handkerchief, as a signal for the games to begin. Spectators cheered the gladiators on by waving hankies, which were gifts from the emperor.
Handkerchiefs were signs of wealth. Aristocrats used them for show, since peasants still blew their noses on their sleeve, or sneezed into hats.
During the Middle Ages (500-1500) sudarium and oraria were used in church coronations and rituals. Priests, at times, were confused as to their use, and were reprimanded for blowing their nose in the sacred garments. Church members waved handkerchiefs as applause during services.
In the Renaissance period (1500-1600) handkerchiefs came in various fabrics and were called “napkyns.” These handkerchiefs were valued with their extensive embroidery and lace. They were used by both men and women of wealth. Women loved to have their portraits painted holding a handkerchief.
In France, it was known as “pleuvoir” (from pleur, to rain or cry). At this time handkerchiefs came in various shapes and sizes ---oblong, circles, ovals. Legend tells us that Queen Marie Antoinette became frustrated with all these different sizes and complained to her husband, King Louis XVI. In 1785, he decreed all handkerchiefs to be equal to their width.
During Napoleon’s reign of terror ( 1793-1794 ), he noticed his soldiers wiped their noses on their sleeves. He then ordered buttons to be sewn on the sleeves of the uniforms, in order to stop this bad habit.
In England, it was King Richard II (1377-1399) who started wearing the pocket square as an accessory. Most British people used them for hygiene. Queen Elizabeth I, loved beautiful handkerchiefs and carried them, as well as creating a language for her staff with hanky gestures.
Hankies were given to admirers who wore them in their hats, as a token of love. If a woman was interested in a man, she’d let him know by drawing the hanky across her cheek, which meant I love you. If she didn’t like the man, the hanky was drawn through her hands. Even into the Victorian era handkerchiefs were linked to courtship and love.
The name for handkerchief comes from medieval head scarves called “kerchief.” This name comes from the French words “couver” to cober and “chef” the head. At this time kerchiefs were worn on the head, later to the neck and called “neckerchief.” Still later, when carried in the pocket and used for perspiration or the nose, in order to distinguish it from the head “hand” was added, making it handkerchief.
Even though I’ve mentioned only a few countries, handkerchiefs were known and loved everywhere, including the U.S. According to Katherine Morris Lester, in “Accessories of Dress,” in 1929, 350,000,000 handkerchiefs were sold in the U.S. Now that’s a lot of blowing!
During the 50s, the handkerchief had its hey day. They were used for political campaigns, souvenir hankies came from various states and vacationers loved them. Commercial artists depicted everything on them from Christmas carols, nursery rhymes, birthday, wedding to funerals.
The handkerchief has traveled far and wide since its beginnings. It’s gone from head coverings to neckerchiefs, to pocket squares. It’s been made of fabrics to paper tissues. Its wiped brows and faces and been blown into. It’s gone from heads, to hands, to pockets, to purses. It’s been used in religious rites, as an accessory, a social status symbol, to love tokens.
Me, well, I don’t intend to “carry a cold in my pocket” as the Kleenex tissue advertised in its beginnings. I’m going to stock up on those Kleenex tissue boxes and have one heck of a winter just “nose-blowing” my way to spring!