Yesterday's Magazette

3 – Vintage Handkerchiefs

Gesundheit … And Then Some


By Madonna Dries Christensen

Do you have a stack of vintage handkerchiefs tucked away in the cedar chest? If you taught school more than a few decades ago you probably do. Before the convenience of throw-away tissues, handkerchiefs were popular gifts from children to teacher at Christmastime or on Valentine’s Day. Miss Snodgrass usually had a hankie up her sleeve, ready to catch a sneeze caused by chalk dust. She might have a few spare hankies in her desk drawer to wipe away a hurt child’s tears or sick child’s runny nose. Games played at recess required a handkerchief as a blindfold: Blind Man’s Bluff and Pin The Tail On The Donkey.

Mothers kept handkerchiefs handy in an apron pocket or doubled over a dress belt. If Buddy ended up with a dirty face on the way to church––and didn’t he always––Mom produced a hankie and, with a dab of spit on it, wiped the face clean as an angel’s. If Sue needed to take money to school for some reason, Mom knotted the coin into the corner of a hankie and pinned it to the child’s dress.

Handkerchiefs were not only utilitarian; they were used to accessorize women’s clothing. A linen hankie was folded into a suit jacket pocket; with the monogram showing. A fall foliage print pinned to the front of a dress became a seasonal corsage. Men, too, tucked a fancy handkerchief into their suit jacket pocket, with another in the pants pocket for actual use. Handkerchiefs were a staple when it came to gifts for men, white monogrammed for dress up times, bandana style for hard labor days. Grandma stocked up on plain white handkerchiefs and personalized them with embroidered monograms for the gentlemen in the family and crocheted lace edging for the ladies.

Today, handkerchiefs are collectible. Some are valued for their needlework, scalloped edges, or lace trim; others because they represent past events: World Fairs, political campaigns, or early television and movie characters. Some were printed with Bible verses, nursery rhymes, social messages, or famous landmarks in cities near and far. Children’s handkerchiefs were printed with animals, nursery rhyme or cartoon characters, and cowboys and Indians. If you have a Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, or Gene Autry bandanna, you might want to hold onto it. Chances are, such items will rapidly grow in value.

What does one do with a handkerchief collection, other than keep them in a box? Crafters have discovered many ways to use and display them. Handkerchiefs are used to make colorful stuffed toys, patchwork quilts, aprons, wreaths, pillow covers, or a collage in an antique picture frame. Hankies with holiday or seasonal motifs are used as table decorations or gifts. With candy and nuts wrapped inside a floral pattern hankie and tied with a ribbon, you have a May basket to hang on someone’s doorknob. Candy canes work well with Christmas designs; and tiny heart candies wrapped in red and white hankies say “I Love You” on Valentine’s Day. Tie a hankie with a shamrock design around a bouquet of green carnations and give it to an Irish friend on St. Patrick’s Day. Filled with potpourri and tied with a ribbon, hankies become sachets for drawers and closets.

Fill the acid-free sheets of a photo album with children’s hankies and let youngsters page through and identify the animals or scenes depicted. Drape a few hankies across a spring rod for a simple window valance. Unfortunately, handkerchiefs in windows will fade and the fabric will deteriorate, so you might want to keep the blinds drawn when the sun is bright. Some people make christening bonnets out of white, lacy handkerchiefs. The bonnet is then saved until the person’s marriage, at which time it can be carried in a bouquet or pocket.

To preserve vintage handkerchiefs, hand wash and rinse well (distilled water is best) to remove all traces of soap and starch, which can destroy delicate fabric. If you think a handkerchief might have monetary value, or if it has sentimental value for you, have it cleaned by a professional textile cleaner. When storing hankies, avoid folding them. Lay them flat or wrapped around an acid-free tube. Or scour flea markets for a satin handkerchief holder in which to store them. These bags were popular gifts during World War II, with servicemen and women sending them home. I have a pink one, with an anchor and U.S. Navy printed on it, and this verse: Mother––With spirit calm as the summer sea, Moving in sweet serenity, I am sure there is no other, In all the world like you, My mother.

What else are handkerchiefs used for? Well, imagine this––environmentally conscious folks have stopped buying paper tissues and use cloth handkerchiefs for what they were intended––catching a sneeze. My six-year-old granddaughter recently asked if I have any pretty handkerchiefs she could have. Her mother uses cloth handkerchiefs, and she wanted her own. I sent her a dozen.

What goes around, comes around (those nasty colds). Grab a hanky and catch that sneeze.  Gesundheit!



  1. this is such a good artical. I was looking up the history of hankys because I was told that hankies were more presious than dimonds when it came to a love token I just wanted to know if its true then I came across this pleasant page.
    Thank you.

    Comment by natasha — July 3, 2009 @ 8:08 am | Reply

  2. What an interesting article. I came across your website while searching to see if I could find a children’s handkerchief I was given when I was a small child back in the early 80s, but which I sadly left in a hotel while on holiday.

    And yes, Natasha, I think hankies are more precious than diamounds when it comes to a love token.

    If anyone ever come across a children’s handkerchief, with a ‘doll’ knitting and a cat sitting beside her entitled ‘Susannah and cat’ – please let me know, I would love to be able to see it again!

    Comment by Annita Wahab — August 2, 2010 @ 11:59 am | Reply

  3. I am looking for info. about a silk hankie I have that says “Wife” and then has an eagle embroidered on it and under it U.S.A.

    Comment by catherine Essary — January 1, 2011 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  4. I have a handkerchief that is in its original box still has the thread on it to keep it together with a seal on it. It says Quality First Snow Flax no#1711, made in Austria. How do I find the value of it ? Karen e-mail

    Comment by karen chinnock — February 20, 2012 @ 11:09 am | Reply

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