History of the Handkerchief

In this post I will discuss the history, traditions and customs of the handkerchief.  By definition, a handkerchief is usually a small piece of fabric that is carried for the purpose of personal hygiene.  In the past handkerchiefs have also been used as a prop for European folk dances.  During the Regency or Victorian periods in England a handkerchief was often used in such a way that it could send hidden messages.

The origin of the word handkerchief comes from two French words, couvrir meaning to cover and chef meaning head.  This was an appropriate descriptive term given that in the Middle Ages a piece of cloth known as the kerchief was often used to cover a women’s head.  Then, during the 16th century European people began to hold kerchiefs tucked into a pocket and these pieces of cloth were used to wipe their face and for this reason the prefix hand was added to the word kerchief to differentiate between the two items.

It has been thought that the origin of the handkerchief dates back to the China during the Zhou dynasty when a piece of cloth was used to cover a person’s head from the sun.  The first written historical record of a handkerchief was by the Ancient Roman poet Catullus and he refers to a piece of linen cloth which was used to wipe a face.  In Ancient Greece perfumed cotton cloths were often used to mask offensive odors due to the fact that people of that time bathed infrequently.

During Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, a lady’s personal handkerchief was often made in more luxurious materials such as silk and for this reason the handkerchief became a symbol of status and wealth.  Sometimes a lady would give her handkerchief as a favor to a noble knight at a jousting tournament or perhaps before going off to battle, she would tie it on the knight’s arm or he would tuck under his armor.

A lady presenting a handkerchief to a knight

Then, during the 16th century, women of the European courts would often spend time practicing their needlework skills and they would stitch intertwined initials or floral designs onto pieces of cloth.  These sometimes large pieces of fabric were sometimes carried as a handkerchief and not only showed a women’s ability in domestic skills but also became a sign of refinement.  These handkerchiefs would also show a sign of wealth because gemstones would sometimes be incorporated into the design or used to create ornamental tassels at the corners.  Queen Elizabeth I was known to have beautiful handkerchiefs embroidered with gold or silver thread and sometimes she would present these as gifts of friendship to the women of her court.

A portrait of an Elizabethan era women holding a handkerchief

There is a handkerchief story involving young Austrian-born Marie Antonia (later known by the French form of her name, Marie-Antoinette).  When traveling to France in 1770 after her betrothal to the Dauphin of France (the future King Louis XVI), she was so upset to be leaving her beloved homeland that she cried endlessly on the journey.  Without a way to wipe away her tears Marie-Antoinette began to tear at her dress pulling away bits of fabric and lace.  Afterwards, in anticipation of her uncertain future, she was determined to keep a handkerchief tucked into her sleeve or pocket if more crying overcame her as she adjusted to life in France at the magnificent Palace of Versailles.

A portrait of the young Marie Antoinette

Prior to this time, handkerchiefs came in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the personal preference of the owner.  Then on June 2, 1785 King Louis XVI issued a decree at the request of Marie-Antoinette, the Queen Consort, that the length of a handkerchief should be equal in size to the width.  This rule would standardize the square shape of the handkerchief as we know it today.

Handkerchief of Marie Antoinette featuring her royal monogram

During the Regency period and through to the Victorian and early Edwardian eras handkerchiefs became increasingly popular.  Prior to those periods a handkerchief was generally used for the purpose of personal hygiene but gradually a handkerchief began to be used for other reasons.  The society rules of romance during those times had very strict rules of etiquette and this limited the intimate contact between couples who were being constantly watched by chaperons.  So, much like the language of flowers used in a tussey mussey or floral bouquet, a handkerchief would be used to convey secret messages.  Below is a list of various gestures that could be made with a handkerchief and the flirtatious meanings.

A Regency era women holding a handkerchief

Until the Regency period most handkerchiefs were made of linen or cotton with the exception of members of royalty or ladies of the aristocracy that could possibly afford handkerchiefs made in more luxurious fabrics such as silk.  Queen Victoria often carried a handkerchief throughout her long life from the time she was a young queen attending public events such as the opera to her time as a widow when she constantly wore black mourning clothes.

Handkerchief of Queen Victoria featuring her royal monogram

Princess May of Teck (later Queen Mary) on her wedding day
holding a Honition lace trimmed handkerchief

By the time of the Victorian and Edwardian periods in England a handkerchief was considered a necessary fashion accessory that now included women of the middle class.  Handkerchiefs were also gaining popularity in the United States and shown below is a 1906 advertisement for Pullman Irish Linen handkerchiefs.

During World War I United States serviceman would sometimes bring home a “souvenir” handkerchief of their time overseas for their girlfriend or wife.  A handkerchief would very easily fit into a duffle bag for the trip home and it was a thoughtful gift to show that the soldier was thinking of his special girl back home.  The trend continued during World War II but the difference was that a handkerchief would be given as a special memento before the serviceman left for his tour of duty.  This was an idea very similar to the old medieval custom of a lady giving a knight her personal favor before a joust or battle but instead it was a soldier giving his girlfriend, wife or even his mother a special memento to remember him while he was away.  Sometimes these handkerchiefs became a very sentimental item to be cherished when a soldier did not return from the war.


Then, something happened that would change the future of the cloth handkerchief.  In 1924 the Kimberly-Clark company introduced the Kleenex facial tissue.  The Kleenex was originally marketed as a way to remove makeup but by the 1930s it was sold as a disposable handkerchief replacement that would lessen the spread of contagious flu and colds.  Eventually the Kleenex would reduce the need of the cloth handkerchief and sales would drastically decrease to the point that handkerchief were almost eliminated it completely from daily use.  Recently with the trend for more environmentally friendly products and the handkerchief has become a more economical alternative to disposable tissues.

1930s magazine advertisements for Kleenex facial tissues

Of course, in regards to weddings, the use of a bridal handkerchief has never gone out of style.  Many brides will carry a special handkerchief on their wedding day to be used as a “something new or something old” item.  In fact with the trend for creative design ideas has created a demand for vintage handkerchiefs to be used as guest favors and other decorative items.  For more suggestions for incorporating handkerchiefs into a wedding day, please click of the link to Ideas for Wedding Handkerchiefs.