ExhibitionsThe Not so Humble Handkerchief

Museum Exhibition 1994

Nowadays the familiar term for handkerchief is ‘hankie’, and we think of it as a cloth that is used to blow the nose or wipe the eyes. However, historically the handkerchief has been a square of plain or decorated fabric which has had many uses. Handkerchiefs could have a ritual or ceremonial significance or were used for display as a form of fashionable dress accessory. When put to practical use, the handkerchief was likely to be worn around the neck or to cover the head.

Handkerchiefs, handheld cloths, are known to have been used in early Greece or Rome. Roman women wore the palla, the equivalent of a man’s toga, and carried a fan and handkerchief as did the women of Byzantium.

The term ‘handkerchief’ seems to have come into use in the sixteenth century. Later, terms like half handkerchief, neckerchief, coverchief and pocket handkerchief were used to define specific forms or uses.

The Anglo Saxons used a ‘swat-cloth’. A later term was ‘hand-cloth’. In the middle ages, a kerchief or coverchief was a square of light linen thrown over the head. ‘V dozen hand-couverchieffes’ are mentioned in the wardrobe accounts of Edward IV in the fifteenth century. New Year gifts to Queen Elizabeth I included numerous ‘handkerchers’.

Children in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, wore a ‘muckinder’ – a large man-size handkerchief, usually attached by one corner to the girdle or waist belt and reaching to the floor.

The word ‘mandil’ entered the language of the eastern Mediterranean from the Latin ‘mandele’, or mantelium’, which was the name for the end of the sleeve or of a cloth attached to the end of the sleeve and used as a handkerchief. Variations of this word are still used throughout the area for a handkerchief. In Turkish, it is ‘mendil’.

By the 1820s and 1830s, the term ’mouchoir’ (French for kerchief of handkerchief) was used to describe the large printed handkerchiefs which were then fashionable for men in England.

In Victorian times, ordinary handkerchiefs for daily use were known as ‘morning handkerchiefs’, while others with printed borders in flower patterns, were described as ‘ladies’ riding handkerchiefs. The embroidered and lace-trimmed handkerchief, which was decorative rather than for practical use, was known as a ‘dress handkerchief’.