History Of The Handkerchief

What is the history of the handkerchief? How did it evolve? The article below covers some possible answers to such a once common object.

This article was originally published in 1890.

About Blowing The Nose

The History of the Pocket Handkerchief Confused in the Lapse of Time

The authorities are neither clear nor in harmony as regards the history of the handkerchief, known popularly in English as pocket handkerchief, says the San Francisco Chronicle. The etymology of the name is, nevertheless, sufficiently clear. The last syllable comes from the old French chief, meaning head, the syllable “ker” is from the French couveir to cover, while the prefixes “hand” and “pocket” were applied when the article began to change its medieval use of head covering and became the aid to neatness and decency which it is at present. The old French name couvre-chef, or chief, came over to England with a host of other French words after the conquest, and in time became “kerchief,” which is long since obsolete in America, though it may, perhaps, be still heard in parts of England. For long ages after the Crusades even women of rank wore the kerchief, which after many changes became the modern hat or bonnet. But exactly what period it began to be carried in the hand or in the exterior pocket or handbag is uncertain.

That there was a time when there were no handkerchiefs is as certain as that there was once an epoch when there was an uncreated world. The handkerchief could not be evolved before the sense of neatness that called it into being, for the law of supply and demand is as old as the creation. For its comparatively modern advent there are sufficient reasons. Civilization began in regions where the climate was mild and colds uncommon. This was the case in Egypt, in Syria, in India and about the Mediterranean. There has nothing been found on any Egyptian tomb or obelisk that suggests the handkerchief. Assyrian monuments throw no light on the subject, and even in regard to ancient Greece the matter is in doubt. But though the fashionables of the old world were required to blow or wipe the nose rarely, there were other uses for such spare drapery as they had about their persons. They perspired freely and wept often, either from grief or rage, or because the sand of the desert was blown into their eyes. What more natural than that the person who perspired or wept should remove the superfluous moisture with the end or corner of his flowing garments, and that in the course of time it should seem to him more neat and proper to have a separate piece of woven fabric for that purpose? Hence originated the sudarium [sweat cloth], which some writers naturally suppose served as a handkerchief in those rare cases when it was necessary to blow the classic nose. This piece of linen drapery, first heard of in Greece and afterward in Rome, where it bore several names, formed part of the attire of priests and was adopted later by the Christian clergy. It underwent several forms in the dark ages. Sometimes it was carried in the hand, at others attached to the belt. Often it was of the finest material and adorned with fringe. It remains as a relic of a disused function in the sacerdotal dress of the Catholic church of all countries today.

There are other writers who believe that the Roman lady, whether old or young, was too highly civilized and too well bred to blow her nose on her robe or to spit on the tessellated pavements of the elegant private mansions or public buildings of the Eternal city, besides which it was little less than sacrilege to perform either of these acts in a temple of the gods. These authorities assert that while the men wore a sort of handkerchief about the neck to be used as a napkin at meals or as an absorber of perspiration, the great Roman dames were supplied with a handkerchief made of the finest linen or cotton. Further than this, while it may be true that catarrh and influenza were rare complaints in central and southern Italy, this was far from being the case in the northern part of the peninsula, where the winters were comparatively severe.

After the fall of the Roman empire and the return of Europe to primitive barbarism, the handkerchief, except as a meaningless part of ecclesiastical costume, lay dormant for some hundreds of years. It is depressing to reflect on the laws of decency violated, of the proprieties trampled under foot, during this long dark epoch when the handkerchief was not. In castles drafty and scarcely warmed, among forests uncleared and swamps undrained, colds were epidemic and the mucous membrane in a constant and inconvenient state of secretion. What was to be done by the queens and noble ladies of this benighted period but to apply to the too effusive nose the ends of the kerchief, while it was in fashion, and later the sleeves of their robes, which were sometimes so long that they fell to their feet. It was the use of the kerchief for this purpose that probably suggested the piece of linen to be carried apart, else why should its name be retained? It was called handkerchief by the English when it began to be carried in the hand, and pocket handkerchief after the invention of the pocket attached to the waist in which ladies carried it. The writers on customs do not seem to know exactly when the handkerchief was evolved, though it may have been in the fourteenth century, soon after the pocket made its appearance as a part of feminine apparel. We know from Shakespeare’s plays that it was in common use in the time of Queen Elizabeth. The great dramatist also mentions it in “King John” as if it were in use in the twelfth century, which is quite uncertain. The French with perfect frankness call the handkerchief mouchoir, “nose-wiper.” The Germans with equal sincerity call it schnupftuch, “snuff-cloth,” as if its use were not known till after the discovery of tobacco in America, and snuff taking became a habit. Are we to infer from this that if tobacco had never been discovered the use of the handkerchief would never have been known in Germany?

Lace was used to ornament handkerchiefs in France as early as 1634. In 1648 they were embroidered and had tassels at each of the four corners. In the time of the directory, that period of fashionable eccentricity, they underwent many vagaries. Those ladies who did not care to wear the pocket attached to the girdle and wished to have the hands at liberty tucked the fan into the belt, slid the purse into the corsage and had the handkerchief carried by a gallant, to whom it was necessary to apply when it happened to be needed. If the handkerchief carrier could not be found, or was insidiously flirting with another woman, and the nose imperatively demanded blowing, the case was serious.

When the French blow the nose, it should be remembered, it is for all it is worth. No one who has not witnessed the performance could ever believe the nasal passages possessed of such a sonorous quality, and when the effort is several times repeated one might easily imagine himself listening to the angel Gabriel rehearsing for the last judgement. The French fashion in this respect is not to be recklessly imitated like Paris styles in laces, silks and satins, fans, dresses, bonnets and other things pertaining to female attire.

The handkerchief of the European peasant still maintains its ancient uses of head covering, perspiration absorber, nose wiper, and snuff cloth. That of the higher civilization has dwindled from the tasseled coverlet carried by the ladies of the renaissance and succeeding epochs to a bit of lace four inches square, which it would be against all proprieties to apply to the nose all inflamed by the prosaic cold. There is nothing in the history of modern emotion more harrowing than the struggle between the necessity of applying the handkerchief to its legitimate use and the desire to keep it clean. There is no sight more distressing than that of a fashionable lady in a drawing room with a bad cold, and a lace handkerchief regulation size. In the problems to which the handkerchief has given rise man has but indirectly shared. There have been epochs when it has been a conspicuous part of his attire and one of his pet vanities, and even now it has some slight pretense to ornament in the form of embroidered initial, fancy hem or foreign color, but with the male being the nose wiper has adhered more or less closely to its traditional use. If it is allowed to peep in a suggestive way from the side pocket of his coat it is, theoretically, of course, that he may not be obliged to fumble about in all his pockets, but may be able easily to grasp and apply it in case of a sudden sneeze or any unexpected emanation caused by the influenza. The vanity is consequently harmless. As the peasant woman of Europe by her universal application of the handkerchief suggests its origin in the Dark Ages, so the small boy, who exists forever in a state of barbarism, is by the use of his sleeve also a reminder of the primitive uncleanliness of the past.

Source: The Helena independent. (Helena, Mont.), 05 Sept. 1890.

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