Tonight’s vintage story, about a collection of old handkerchiefs that has come into my possession, celebrates the people they once belonged to. It also reveals the evolution of this almost obsolete item.
I am fond of old linens, from pillowcases and embroidered dish towels, to tablecloths and crocheted doilies. I appreciate the practical functions they provided in the past and how they can still serve me beautifully today. Vintage linens are often featured in my vignettes as a backdrop for a grouping of items.
Handkerchiefs are a bit different, in that they have fallen out of use with the invention of paper tissues. Today I rarely see a handkerchief in use except as a neatly folded accessory in a suit pocket.
The old hankies that I cherish belonged to dear women in my family. Some were once carried by Leta Moore, or slipped into her purse. She was fond of the Estée Lauder perfume Youth Dew. That scent clings faintly to her delicate hankies.
Others in my collection belonged to my grandmother Mildred and my great-grandmother Cynthia. I am named after both of these amazing women so it gives me joy to have these little scraps of silk or cotton, knowing they tucked them into a blouse pocket or up a sleeve.
Grandma Mildred favored rose water and I can imagine that subtle fragrance when I press a handkerchief to my nose and inhale deeply.
Curious about how these squares of fabric came into use, I researched handkerchiefs.
I discovered that handkerchiefs date back to the 10th century. They show up in many different cultures, serving as head coverings for the Chinese and French, appearing in Turkish literature, and in Anatolia they were used to wrap packages. The British changed the name from kerchief to handkerchief after they began to carry the cloths in their hands. Later men tucked handkerchiefs into their hats and women slipped them into their cleavage.
The handkerchief has long been associated with lovers. A woman sent her handkerchief to her lover to suggest a meeting or as a token of her affection, or waved it to say “I am available.” If a woman dropped her handkerchief purposefully in front of a man it meant “I love you.” If her gentlemen picked it up and put it in his pocket it signified “I love you too.”
Handkerchiefs were used for other purposes as well. Knotted in one corner they secured coins or a trinket that the owner did not want to lose. Dampened with water they scrubbed a child’s face or soothed a fevered brow. Handkerchiefs blotted perspiration from a face or wiped away a tear trailing down a cheek. They could be opened to serve as a makeshift tablecloth for a picnic lunch and a white handkerchief waved symbolized surrender.
Eventually handkerchiefs primarily became a cloth to wipe the nose on…and the delicate cloths shifted to sturdier practical squares suitable for sneezing into! As tissues gained in use, handkerchiefs ended up folded away in drawers, forgotten.
I prefer to hold onto the beauty and romance of my handkerchiefs, rather than use them in practical ways. I created cloth roses out of them. It’s easy to do. Simply fold the handkerchiefs lengthwise three or four times and then twist the strip of cloth. Starting at one end, wrap the twisted cloth in a circular manner, forming a rose, and tuck the loose end beneath the completed spiral. I display mine in a simple ceramic dish.
These old handkerchiefs, fashioned into pretty little roses, remind me of three strong, beautiful women who impacted my life, and of another era in time. I smile every time I look at them.