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Have handkerchiefs blown away?
09.20 echoes
A collection of women’s handkerchiefs. The handkerchief, once essential, has gone out of style. - photo by Photo submitted

Has the handkerchief met its demise? Recently at the Springfield Farm Bureau meeting, a brief survey showed seven persons of the group in attendance were carrying a real handkerchief rather than a disposable tissue. This “handkerchief toting few” may be well above the average in this mostly older aged rural agricultural group in our area in the South.  I suspect city folks are less apt to have a cloth handkerchief.

In times gone by a lady or gentleman never left home without one. The ladies weekday “hankie” was often floral and colorful while the “Sunday-go-to-meeting” ones were of finer cotton or linen often elaborately decorated with needlework, appliqués, tatting or lace. These hand worked items were heirlooms to be handed down as prized keepsakes.

Some purchased “hankies” were printed in floral or plaid and were quite gaudy. Brides sometimes had fancy lace handkerchiefs woven into bouquets for the wedding in times gone by.

Mothers of brides always had one in hand at the wedding to dry tears. The grieving used them to catch tears at funerals. Mothers had them on hand to take care of her children’s noses, etc.  

Men used large work handkerchiefs, often bandanna print or plaid, during the week to mop sweat, blow the nose and clear the eyes of dust. They tied them over the nose to keep dust from overcoming them during farm work. Men used white handkerchiefs for their Sundays and special occasions. Criminals often hid behind the large handkerchief tied over the face to hide their features. We saw this in the old western movies when the bad guys robbed and wreaked havoc.  

Now wherever we go, there is a box of disposable facial tissues. Have we lost touch with something of much comfort? Many will say it is not sanitary to carry around a cloth full of our nasal secretions. Is not having somewhere to blow the nasal mucus worse? Perhaps this is why the old cloth handkerchief is seldom used and tissues became common.

One thing is for sure, if you wash a handkerchief in a pocket it won’t tear up in shreds all over the laundry like a hidden tissue left in a pocket.

Vestal Goodman of the gospel group, The Goodman Family, always sang in public with her trademark large handkerchief hanging down in her hand.

I have several old handkerchiefs which I prize which belonged to my Aunt Elice Reisser, my grandmother Annie Mae Reisser and others. The seldom seen old handkerchiefs are now highly collectible and available at auction sites and sales.

Few things were quite as versatile as the handkerchief. It wiped tears and a nose, doubled as a potholder, became a bandage for a wound and was used as a cleaning device for spills or a dirty windshield. In an emergency a tourniquet could be made with a stick and a “hankie.” By knotting all four ends, a head covering could be made to protect the tender, bald and frail from the sun. They were used to fan the face and swat insects.

Many have dusted furniture as unexpected company arrived and/or polished shoes with their pocket handkerchief. Nothing cleaned eye glasses like a cloth handkerchief. Modern day disposable tissues leave fuzz that the handkerchief never deposited.  

Some things do come back into use as time goes on. I read that cotton diapers are coming back to cut costs, cure diaper rash and help the environment. Perhaps the pocket handkerchief will blow back into wider use as our world becomes greener but then there is the washing and ironing of handkerchiefs to consider. When you die, will you leave a “hankie” with embroidery for your descendants to treasure or a paper tissue for your loved ones to inherit?

This article was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have questions, photographs or comments to contribute, please contact her at 754-6681 or email