Man wearing handkerchief

The History of the Handkerchief

In a world dominated by disposable tissues and sanitizers, the handkerchief may seem like a relic of the past. However, this timeless piece of fabric has a rich history that spans centuries and continues to serve a variety of practical and symbolic purposes today. Join us as we explore the history of handkerchiefs and discover how they remain relevant in today's modern world.


Ancient Origins

The history of handkerchiefs dates back to ancient civilizations, with evidence of their existence in cultures such as Egypt, Rome, and China. In ancient Rome, for instance, handkerchiefs, known as "sudarium" or "sudarium nasorum," were used primarily for personal hygiene. They were made from various materials like linen and were considered a luxury item.



Handkerchiefs in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages in Europe, the hanky took on a more ornamental role. They were often elaborately embroidered and used as fashionable accessories. Wealthy individuals would showcase their status by carrying intricately designed handkerchiefs, and these items became symbols of refinement and taste. Kings and other royalty would display the most exotic materials and beautiful designs to demonstrate their wealth.

Renaissance Woman holding a fancy handkerchief



The Renaissance

The Renaissance period saw handkerchiefs evolve further, both in terms of design and function. They became an essential accessory for both men and women, often made from delicate fabrics like silk or lace. The cultural significance of handkerchiefs extended to romantic gestures, as they were exchanged as tokens of affection. If a woman presented a man with her handkerchief, that was her way of saying she was interested in him. By accepting, men were saying the interest is mutual. This practice gave rise to the expression "dropping your handkerchief" as a flirtatious act. Knights even publicly wore a lady’s handkerchief to show he had her favor.


The Victorian Era

Hankies reached their peak of popularity during the Victorian era: men and women carried them at all times, and the handkerchief's design became more intricate and sentimental. They were often used to convey secret messages, and handkerchief "language" became a form of non-verbal communication. It was created by Queen Elizabeth to communicate with her staff, but it became popular among women as a way to communicate with men. Women couldn't show interest in the way they do now, so they used their handkerchief. Some of the language included drawing it across the cheek to say "I love you" or drawing it through the hands to express "I hate you."


The 20th Century and Beyond

At the start of the 20th century, the role of handkerchiefs began to shift. With the rise of disposable tissues, their function as a hygiene tool diminished. However, they continued to be used as accessories and symbols of elegance. Men's suits often included a pocket specifically designed for a handkerchief, known as a "pocket square." These pocket squares added a touch of sophistication to formal attire and allowed individuals to express their personal style.


Woman using handkerchief to blow her nose

Handkerchiefs Today

In the 21st century, hankies have found new relevance. While they may not be as commonplace as they once were, they are still cherished by those who appreciate their timeless charm. Here are some of the modern uses and reasons why handkerchiefs remain valuable today:

  • Eco-Friendly Choice: Handkerchiefs are reusable, making them an environmentally friendly alternative to disposable tissues.
  • Fashion Accessory: Handkerchiefs, particularly pocket squares, continue to be a staple in men's and women's fashion. They add flair, a pop of color, and individuality to outfits.
  • Nostalgia: Some individuals carry handkerchiefs as a nostalgic reminder of a bygone era or as a connection to their heritage.
  • Functional Utility: Handkerchiefs can still be used for their original purpose – wiping away tears, sweat, or a runny nose.
  • Personalization: They make thoughtful gifts when decorated with embroidery and can be a sentimental keepsake.


Building Your Personal Handkerchief Collection

The hanky is an accessory that has survived for centuries and is clearly here to stay, so growing your dapper handkerchief collection is a smart fashion investment! They can be carried with you everyday day or added to your outfit for just a pop of color and class on formal occasions.

Trafalgar’s collection is handcrafted from only the finest materials that are soft to the touch. We carry anything from the classic solid white, to sophisticated pastels, to bold colorful patterns. We offer the usual 13” x 13” design but also have larger styles that go up to 16” x 16”.

Set of 5 cotton handkerchiefs
The history of handkerchiefs is a testament to their enduring appeal. From ancient times to the present day, these small pieces of fabric have served practical, cultural, and personal purposes. Despite the convenience of disposable alternatives, handkerchiefs continue to hold a special place in our hearts and wardrobes, reminding us of a time when elegance and utility were perfectly intertwined. Whether as a fashion statement, a touch of nostalgia, or an eco-conscious choice, the handkerchief remains a symbol of timeless elegance in our ever-evolving world. By investing in Trafalgar’s quality products, you can feel confident this accessory will stand the test of time. Start growing your handkerchief collection today!
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