Friday, August 19, 2011


When I was a little girl in the ‘50s, women still carried handkerchiefs, or hankies. I’m sure the popularity of hankies amongst younger women was waning somewhat in favor of more sanitary disposable tissue, but hankies could still be found in the marketplace and older women certainly carried them and probably considered them a sign of gentility. I well remember a hankie being pulled from a pocketbook or clutched in the palm of a hand.

Even when I was a young adult, displays of beautiful handkerchiefs were still found in department stores and women’s specialty shops.  Occasionally a woman might treat herself to a new handkerchief, and the gift of a handkerchief was a rather classy yet inexpensive way to remember someone. A “handkerchief shower” might be given to honor a woman, perhaps as she was leaving the community for a new home, for example. Each guest would bring a handkerchief – some in flat boxes called folders and some enclosed in cards – to be opened by the honoree. 
I happen to have a lot of handkerchiefs. A conservative estimate is fifty – and that doesn’t count Grandma Ina’s fifteen. After 40 years of ignoring them, I was recently inspired to locate and spread them out on a bed, and I have to admit that though some of them seemed familiar, I couldn’t remember anything about them. I expect I dismissed hankies as useless. “It’s just a keepsake,” I can hear my mother saying. “Just tuck it in your drawer; it doesn’t take up any space. It was so thoughtful of ‘so-and-so’ to remember you.”

Thankfully, some of the hankies were identified. I found three with “Grandma Portfors” written on little slips of paper carefully tucked in a fold. A few other hankies were identified in like manner. One, still in wrapping paper, carried the message, “For Kathy upon Nina’s initiation into Eastern Star, from Una.” And I remembered how unhappy I had been because Nina received many hankies on that occasion and I didn’t understand why she should be so honored. Perhaps the hankie came from Una’s purse to placate a five-year-old Kathy.

The only handkerchief I really remembered was a beautiful lace number with beading. Taking another trip down memory lane, I recalled how my friend Marcia bought me that beautiful handkerchief one evening as we were shopping (about 1973). I tried to dissuade her, but she loved handkerchiefs and insisted I should have one. The saleslady pulled hankies from the glass case at Marcia’s request, much as you’d ask to see items at a jewelry counter. That handkerchief is now the only one I really remember. 
Handkerchiefs gradually faded from the scene, and I know something about that, too. When I was pregnant with my first baby in 1977, Bennie, my mother-in-law, sent me a baby bonnet she had fashioned out of a lacy off-white handkerchief. It came with a little poem about how the baby would wear the bonnet home from the hospital. If the baby was a girl, she would carry the hankie on her wedding day, and if the baby was a boy, he would give the hankie to his bride to carry on their wedding day.

In 1979, as I was having my second child, here came another little bonnet with the same poem enclosed. Clearly, this baby was to be blessed with his own bonnet.

In 1981, before Hallie was born, Bennie asked what she could do for the baby, and I mentioned the handkerchief bonnet. She gave me a dubious look, and I thought perhaps I had overstepped my bounds, but she didn’t say anything. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but before the baby was born, her special bonnet from Grandma Bennie arrived. Sometime later, Bennie explained that it had been difficult to find a hankie for the 1979 bonnet and in 1981, it had been all but impossible. The store where she bought handkerchiefs had discontinued them, she said. She had asked here and there until she found one that would do.

So, this is my own little history of handkerchiefs. Do you have handkerchiefs? And if you do, do you think we should treasure them as they are, or do you think we should find ways to use them?

[Photo 1: I no longer remember how most of these handkerchiefs came into my collection. The grouping of dark ones are men's dress handkerchiefs that belonged to my dad. The bucking horse with bright yellow edge is a scarf -- maybe a bandana -- commemorating the Pendleton (Oregon) Rodeo. It has a quarter inch hole in the middle. 
Photo 2: Children had hankies, too, and this photo includes some of my children's storybook or character designs.
Photo 3: This photo focuses on a few of my least favorites. The reason I separated those out will be the subject of another post.
Photo 4: Ina's collection of hankies. One with wide lace edging is well worn, obviously a favorite. Others seem new. Ina passed away in 1957, and the fact that these remained in the house indicates a waning interest in hankies at that time.
Photo 5 is Baby Hallie's hospital portrait. She's wearing the handkerchief bonnet that her Grandma Bennie made for her.]


DrJulieAnn @ Modern Retro Woman said...

I love hankies and wish they were still in use (although I understand the sanitary reasons for using a paper tissue when blowing one's nose). During certain times of the year, my eyes are constantly watering because of my allergies and a hankie just seems so much more lady like to dab with than a wadded up piece of paper.

debdog42 said...

I love hankies too and have a small collection consisting mostly of hankies that my mom was given during a hankie shower bwefore she left for college by her church group. I would love to see your collection sometime Kathy!!

Anonymous said...

I used to have some hankies. Wonder if I still do?? Hmmm.

I like Dr. Julie's idea of using them for allergy eyes and I, too, have that problem. For colds, hankies are worthless. I remember using Dad's big ol' red ones and even those quickly grew soggy and ineffective. Cheaper, though, than Kleenex which we never had.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that I love the picture of Hallie!! Love, love, love it!

Kathy said...

I have instituted "Frivolous Friday" for my occasional flights of fancy.

A hankie was a simple, thoughtful gifts or remembrance. It was a nice tradition. A hankie was always an appropriate gift for a woman and buying it was not a sacrifice for the giver.

Chris, we had Kleenex but my parents had a conservative attitude toward the use of paper products.

Thanks for the comments.

Leah said...

What I never understood was why men’s and women's hankies were so different. A man could "use" his and receive a benefit. A woman could barely stifle a sneeze, because it was so very thin. Did women carry a hankie of sturdier fabric hidden in a pocket or purse for serious use?

I remember that giving a man a dozen monogrammed handkerchiefs was a nice gift in the 30's & 40's. Men have the holdover of a hankie in the breast pocket of their suits today. Albeit it is often brightly colored silk just for decoration. These are called pocket squares. Men hang on to their fashions for decades. Women gave up their decorative hankies along with their gloves years ago.

I have an old apron made of very thin blue floral hankies. It has a handkerchief hem and is not very utilitarian. Cute, though.

One fond memory I have of hankies was when I was very little. My mother would tie a coin into a corner of my hankie. This coin would be my offering at Sunday School.

Kathy, the baby bonnets made from hankies for your little ones is such a nice memory. How sweet of Bennie to work so hard on these treasures.

Hallie said...

I was just thinking that those pretty silk hankies were probably not very absorbent--Leah confirmed! It is too bad that the hankie tradition is gone. Maybe I'll find one and carry it in my purse. It would be fine for my occasional slightly runny nose. I wouldn't use it for a real blow.

I wonder how it is that these elusive photos of me are surfacing. Methinks Mom is going through a shoebox of photos. ;)

Kathy said...

Actually, I find pictures in boxes and lay them out to illustrate various ideas. Then I can't find them when I want them. I am very proud of myself for locating these photos when I wanted them. Also, I have cute pictures of other children -- mine and others.

Leah, Bennie was a clever lady, but the bonnet wasn't hard to make. Just a few folds tacked into place. But I just couldn't bring myself to snip those threads when Hallie got married. All three bonnets are intact.

Leah said...

Hallie: Start saving your baby photos to your computer. Next mother's day you can make your mom a very personalized card.

Leah said...

I know this is going to sound silly, but I'm curious about the boxes beside the hankies. I've always loved boxes. Over the years, I've kept boxes from stationery, colonge, etc. The boxes are meant to be used after the product served it's purpose or that's what I tell myself. I'm like the kid that likes the box better than the toy!

Of course, I put something meaningful inside to protect the treasure.

Kathy said...

No, the comment about boxes doesn't sound silly, Leah. Ina and I share your love of boxes. Rather than go on about that here, I'll make boxes the subject of another "Frivolous Friday."

So -- the cedar box was a "freebie" with my cedar chest. The little flat box with the kiddie hankies was originally Ina's. The box with Ina's hankies is a stationery box of hers.

Hallie said...

My fingers look like they're bent backwards. Ick! What is wrong with me???!

Kathy said...

I think that's some kind of optical illusion. Your fingers and toes were just fine. But you can tell by the expression on your face that you didn't much like things the way they were.