The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky

A Humble Hanky –One of my earliest memories is my mother dabbing her lace-edged hanky with cologne and tucking it into her saree, along with her keys.  To the little me, this seemed the height of femininity and grace.  My mother kept her hankies, like precious keepsakes, in a box with a big bow on it.  A few years later, an aunt gifted me a set of seven, one for each day of the week, embroidered with pixies and flowers.  How delighted I was. 

Vintage days of the week hankies
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky

The Daily Sabah Othello hanky scene. Painting by Daniel Maclise

Hankies are not just something we use to sneeze or dab our faces. They have a long history,  intimately connected to the culture and sociology of the era they come from.  They are still given at weddings as a symbol of marital fidelity, so in Othello, the whole plot revolves around one.  They were waved in farewell, used to wipe tears, associated with cowboys, given as keepsakes or as prizes to gladiators

The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
Being waved in farewell
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
The hanky in the language of love. Persian miniature.

History of Hanky

The hanky first emerged in 2000 BCE Egypt, like white linen cloths, used as a mark of status.  There is mention of them in China, around 1000 BCE, worn as scalp protection. The Romans called them ‘sudariums,’ from the root sudore/to sweat. India has its own history. The telia rumal (hanky) of Andhra Pradesh, used initially to clean temple statues, became a massive export to pilgrims going on Hajj, as did the RMHK, or real madras hanky, which was exported to Africa in huge numbers. 

The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
A document of an Egyptian lady ordering hankies. From the Met.
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
Telia Rumal
Boddu Subrahmanyan master weaver displaying the cornucopia design. He is the only contemporary weaver in RMHK weaving. Image from The Federal.

Hanky in France

Finally, in 14th century France, they became a fashion accessory, decorated with embroidery and lace. In silk, cotton, and linen, and they continued to be used by nobility, often given as Christmas gifts at the Elizabethan court. 

The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
A French hanky with lace. MFA Boston
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
Detail.
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
Vintage hanky in cotton batiste.

Louis XVI of France dictated their square shape and standard size: 11/11 inches, apparently prompted by his daughter-in-law Marie Antoinette, who adored them.  And so they remain.

With the Industrial Revolution making cloth available cheaply to all classes, all classes widely adopted the hanky. It was helpful and also a quick, cheap way to add color and style to an outfit, worn knotted at the neck or tucked into a bag.  This continued into the 20th century, especially with the growth in urban pollution when hankies could be held to the nose.  As dyes became colorfast and industrial production increased, working-class people would carry a bright hanky as a cheering accessory. 

Handkerchief design reflected social movements and trends from the 1930s onwards,  with polka dots, floral patterns, geometrics, calendars, currency exchange rates, housekeeping tips, recipes for food/cocktails.  Any cultural movement inevitably found its way into hanky design. People would pull out interesting hankies as conversation starters, and they became increasingly associated with memorabilia and publicity for businesses.  Many hanky designers became cults and progressed into textile design as a consequence.  The hankies that remain from this era are often signed by the designer.  

The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
Hanky design by Tammis Keefe
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
Know your future hankies. Courtesy Ann Mahony
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
Calorie trackers. Courtesy Ann Mahony
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
A how to. Courtesy Ann Mahony

Hanky in Current Times

Sadly, with disposable tissue invention, hankies gradually fell into disuse, were seen more as a cultural and historical relic, and were consigned to drawers instead of the pocket.  This happened in the west from the 50s onwards and in India from the 70s. 

Interestingly, the pocket square, a kind of hanky, has become highly popular in the last ten years as an accessory for stylish men tucked into blazer pockets.  There is fascinating textile design around this style statement.  

The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
Vintage picture from The Art of Manliness A dapper outfit. From Rampley.com
The History of a Little Piece of Textile, A Humble Hanky
How to fold a pocket square.

Let’s not lose the hankies that might still occupy the corners of our wardrobe drawers.  They are tiny pieces of cloth, no longer useful.  But they carry a long history, which should not be lost.  The elusive scent on an old one is the best nasal and visual memory.

AUTHOR BIO

Mira Gupta

Mira Gupta is a well-known curator and designer in craft-based luxury.  She has had working stints with Fabindia, Good Earth, and Ogaan to promote the cause of craft.  She is deeply interested in art, travel, architecture, and culture.

Read more articles by the Author HERE

Let’s not lose the hankies that might still occupy the corners of our wardrobe drawers.  They are tiny pieces of cloth, no longer useful.  But they carry a long history, which should not be lost.  The elusive scent on an old one is the best nasal and visual memory.

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