The history of the handkerchief goes back hundreds of years-- as the perfect way to dry tears, a gentle way to take care of a cold, and even as a way to catch the eye of that special fellow. More recently, with the introduction of facial tissues, it's also become a representation of a bygone era-- a symbol of comfort, of style, and of a less complex world. They've also become incredibly collectible.
Yesterday, a church rummage sale proved extremely lucky, hanky-wise. An entire box of hankies, of varying styles, colors and time periods. Forty-two in all, for ten bucks! And it was hitting this hanky motherlode that made me realize-- there was no better time than now to talk about those soft little cotton squares so many of us still love.
Simple white handkerchiefs... ones with tatting edges... some monogrammed... some delicately embroidered... Many in vivid color... Or showcasing the shades of the seasons... There's virtually no end to the options available.
The book Handkerchiefs: A Collector's Guide by Helene Guarnaccia and Barbara Guggenheim showcases a range of hankies like I've never seen before. Their collection shows handkerchiefs bearing everything from pets and popular cartoon characters, to souvenier handkerchiefs of the 50 states, hankies displaying airline first class menus, recipes, pop art, calendars, holidays, botanicals and so much more.
Why the variety? Well, according to the book, when facial tissues were invented in the 1920s, the hanky fell a bit out of favor as less sanitary. But after World War II, hankies had a big resurgence as a colorful yet inexpensive accessory. Priced at anywhere from fifteen cents to a dollar, hankies became a way to have a little fun shopping without breaking the bank. They were given as gifts to family and schoolteachers, and used as a way of expressing oneself.
Some women even collected specific handkerchief artists, and would wait for the next work in the artists' series. Popular artists over the years included Tammis Keefe, Carl Tait, Pat Prichard, Jeanne Miller and Tom Lamb.
Today, it's possible to find some lovely hankies at thrift stores for around the seventy-five cent to one dollar range. And at flea markets and antiques malls? They average $3 and up, depending on collectability.
Ones most commonly found are in the holiday and botanical lines. Here are two holiday hankies prepared to celebrate Christmas and St. Patrick's Day...
And one as a souvenir from sunny Florida....
It's interesting to see the different range of colors available on botanical hankies, too. These browns and aquas are actually appropriate for today's decorating trends...
Roses were popular in botanical handkerchiefs, though other flowers were done quite realistically, as well.
While some hankies have straight edges, many of them are scalloped, and some are actually round instead of square. Collectors may choose to purchase hankies based solely on their shape or type.
I love the depth and realism of these peonies. They appear to be almost hand-painted.
Embroidered flowers were popular decorations on hankies, as well. Note the different kinds of flowers included here: pansies, daisies and lily of the valley.
As gifts, hankies were sometimes tucked into what was called a hanky book. The book below was my mother's, given to her as a girl by a family friend...
The hanky-a-day included in this case, Mother Goose story characters where their clothing was made of a brand new hanky. Some were skirts, some overalls, some bibs...
Mom never had the heart to use them-- and I can certainly see why, when the book has such charm with the hankies intact.
For those interested in picking up a few hankies at your local thrift stores or flea markets, keep in mind, there are a lot of interesting things you can do with them, too. Consider ideas like:
- Using hankies in a similar color palette as unique cloth dinner napkins
- Frame them as wall art
- Sew them into a handkerchief quilt, a unique halter top, or a broomstick skirt
- Use them as a curtain pelmet
- Use them as doilies under a lamp or on an armchair
- Miss the fog creeping over Pittsburgh in last Treasure Box Wednesday? Click here.