About a couple of months ago, I found it hard to find any tissue handkerchiefs in supermarkets. Not that I needed any – I always have some in stock at home. But it made me wonder how people had done without them before – because now they must have bought them like crazy. That’s when I pondered the meaning of handkerchiefs in my life.
One of the principles my mother raised me on was “A lady always has a handkerchief on her”. Whenever we left home, she made sure I had one on me. A cotton one, for sure. Today I don’t want to think of how we got through our childhood colds on cotton handkerchiefs only. It makes me shudder. Thank goodness, tissue ones became available more and more widely to take along to school and other places. But as an accessory I still also carried cloth ones along. They came in handy instead of a wash cloth when you needed to rub a spill out of something or to clean a minor wound. At one time, I remember, one of my dad’s real big handkerchiefs served as a “tote” for mushrooms we found during an outing.
When I was very little, my dad wore a handkerchief carefully folded in the breast pocket of his best suit on special occasions. And I remember embroidering a white cotton handkerchief with a clef as a gift for a music teacher of mine for exactly that purpose as well.
In my teen years I found myself with a load of cotton handkerchiefs, checkered, transparent, laced, printed. I loved looking at them but didn’t use them anymore. In the end I discarded all of them and gave the laced ones to my mother, who still had a beautiful collection.
So, what of handkerchiefs? When did they come to us? Well, kerchiefs – from the French “couvrir”, i.e. “cover”, and “chef”, i.e. “head” – we at least know that the term dates back to the Middle Ages. But actually, handkerchiefs were already known in ancient Greece. King Richard II of England, from the Plantagenet family (a French speaking House), is said to have invented the cloth handkerchief. And a handkerchief lost is Desdemona’s downfall in Shakespeare’s play “Othello”. Which shows how common by then such a square of cloth had become, but also that it could be used symbolically.
In the 18th century, women waved their handkerchiefs (men did so with their hats) as a sign of approval. Apparently, in Spain the 12th man uses white handkerchiefs as a sign of either approval or disgust at their soccer team’s performance. I have seen Morris dancers in England wave handkerchiefs, and I know there are other countries that use handkerchiefs in folk dance – I wonder whether there is some special symbolism in that.
In fact, there is an entire handkerchief code of colors for different purposes, too. At US dances with a shortage of women, cowboys, railroad engineers, and miners in the 1800s used to signal they’d dance the male part with a blue bandana hanging from their pant pocket, whereas a red bandana signaled the female part. The 20 century LGBT movement came up with an entire rainbow of colors to signal special preferences.
I was blissfully unaware of any symbolism of handkerchiefs in my childhood and teen years. To me they had to be clean and simply pretty. A white one was sometimes used to wave somebody good-bye, as the white fluttering of cloth is visible from afar way better than the simple wave of a hand.
The last time I had a cloth handkerchief on me was on my wedding day. My mother had handed it to me a couple of days before. It was one that had formerly belonged to me (so quite old already), with blue lace around it. My mother let me only borrow it – I forget what the “new” was in this handkerchief. But it was touching that, though as German as I, she remembered the English wedding tradition. I doubt that my marriage has been most happy because of that handkerchief, of course. But it still makes for a sweet little detail in memories of a very special day.