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The history of the handkerchief

Published on May 1, 2018

The history of the handkerchief

Did you know that the pocket sized handkerchief we know today has been around for hundreds of years but the handkerchief in its many versions dates back to Ancient China and the Roman Empire? Interestingly, the humble hanky was often seen as a sign of wealth and wasn’t just a means to blow ones nose. Surely something with so much history deserves a comeback?

It appears that there are many contradicting facts about the history of the handkerchief (who knew it was such a debated topic), so this timeline may not be entirely accurate, though interesting nonetheless!


1000BC – 200BC(ish) – As far back as the Chou dynasty, handkerchiefs were used to shield a person’s head from the sun. Even statues show figures holding decorative pieces of cloth.

200BC – 3AD(ish) – The earliest written evidence of the hanky comes from the Roman poet Catullus in the 1st century AD. It was apparently called a “sudarium”, from sudor (“to sweat”), and was used to shield the face or mouth and wipe the sweat off one’s brow. It was a luxury for the rich due to the expensive nature of the linen used. Roman games began with the drop of a lady’s hanky and they were waved by spectators to show appreciation. There are also references to their use in Ancient Greece as perfumed cotton cloths.

14th – 15th Century – The handkerchief was used throughout France, Italy and England by noble Lords and Ladies. It was commonly made out of fine silk with exquisite lace in various shapes from square to round to rectangular. In France it was known as “pleuvoir” from pleur (“to rain, tear or cry’), in England it was called a “hand coverchief” and in Italy it was welcomed into the marriage dowry inventory. Less extravagant versions known as “muckinders” were given to kids to wipe their faces and runny noses.

16th Century – Queen Elizabeth was a fan of luxurious handkerchiefs embroided with gold and silver thread and received many a gifted one. It was around this time that they became popular as a form of flirtation and given as favours to admirers.

17th Century – The handkerchief was central to the demise of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ and Othello himself.

18th century – Legend has it that Marie-Antoinette thought that a squared form of a handkerchief was more aesthetically pleasing so her husband King Louis XVI ordered that handkerchiefs should have lengths equal to their width.

Early 20th century – During the depression, the hanky was the only “fashion” item a woman could afford so she would change her outfits by updating her handkerchiefs. No discerning gentleman would be seen without a silk, linen or cotton handkerchief in the left breast pocket of his suit jacket (known as a pocket square), more for decoration rather than hygiene purposes!

1930’s onwards – It was a sad day for the handkerchief when Kleenex tissues were invented as many people opted for the disposable alternative. It was touted as more hygienic thanks to the Kleenex slogan “don’t carry a cold in your pocket.” Though the pocket square was still popular until at least the 60’s.

21st century onwards – Handkerchiefs are re-emerging. People, especially hayfever sufferers, might ditch the tissues in favour of the more environmentally friendly and convenient hanky. The pocket square will also come firmly back into fashion.


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