The humble handkerchief is tied into human history, culture, and literature more than you realize. The history of the hankie spans continents, traditions, and human development. From ritual, to fashion, first century to twenty first. Read on to explore the surprising ways that the handkerchief has featured from historical times, through the modern era, and how it will be with us into the future.
Ancient Times, Faraway Lands
The story of the handkerchief originates in various places simultaneously. We’re all human, so we all sweat the same. Archaeological evidence has been found in China from 1000 BC showing figurines from the Chou dynasty holding pieces of cloth. This was thought to have been for the practical purposes of shielding their faces from the sun, or using it pretty much in the way that we use traditional handkerchiefs today – for blowing our noses, wiping our brow of sweat, or cleaning up a spill.
Even from time in memoriam, there is endless utility for a personal cloth.
Roman culture is awash with references to handkerchiefs. It would be quite a spectacle to see hundreds of Romans waving their handkerchiefs in the air at public games. Handkerchiefs were also used as the “starting gun”for chariot races.
As trade along the Silk Road boomed between the 14th and 15th centuries, goods, as well as culture, were exchanged between Europe and Asia. This included headscarves that doubled as hankies.
Handkerchiefs were also found in Middle Eastern culture, Uighur communities, Turkish culture, and among many other cultures all around the world throughout history. Their purpose ranged from preserving the sacred, bandaging wounds, signalling others, serving as a wallet for coins, or serving decorative and ritual purposes.
A symbol of devotion through history
A handkerchief was so much more than just medieval Kleenex. In fact, hankies were not used to blow one’s nose until the 15th century, when Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus declared that snot on the sleeve was pretty gross.
Handkerchiefs and romance were inextricably linked together in cultures in the middle ages up until the modern era. For example, in the era before the cellphone photo, a knight would tie a lady’s handkerchief to the back of his helmet as a remembrance and token of good luck.
But that’s not all. Handkerchiefs gestures came to be a secret language of love.
When a maiden tossed her handkerchief from a window, it was a declaration of love, hopefully to be picked up by the man she intended her love for, and not a passing stranger. Should the object of her affection carefully pick it up and fold it into his pocket, it was the medieval equivalent of swiping right, and finding that it’s a match.
Or, if she was in the market, she would drop her handkerchief on the ground in one of many public parks that were frequented by eligible young gentlemen and chaperoned young women. This would mean that she is looking to meet the person she would love, and who would love her.
Instead of ghosting, or flowery break up letters, lovers just sent those handkerchiefs back to each other, symbolic of returning love.
A woman might send a homemade hankie, embroidered with patterns that carried its own bespoke meaning, to her love interest to be kept as a token. Should lovers exchange hankies with singed edges, it meant a deep, searing, passionate love.
Instead of texting each other “we on 4 2nite?”, a woman could subtly hold her handkerchief in the middle while she had the attention of her paramour. That gesture meant that she would be waiting for him for a midnight rendezvous of love that very night. A man might reply by waving his handkerchief with a flourish, universally read as meaning “yes”.
Handkerchiefs were such a powerful symbol of fidelity and romance, that Shakespeare’s play Othello turned on the incident of a handkerchief. Given to his love Desdemona as a symbol of his love, the mistaken impression that she had given away her handkerchief to another man was scandalous enough to drive him to an ill-fated rage.
A symbol of Wealth, Status and Class
Handkerchiefs became synonymous with signaling high station in life in Europe and beyond. Everyone from Persian Kings to European royalty adopted the beautifully embroidered hankies crafted from exotic fabrics to demonstrate their divinely ordained VIP status.
If you didn’t have a hankie, it wasn’t full drip (and we’re not talking about a runny nose). This meant that oversize handkerchiefs became quite the rage in 18th century Paris, until King Louis XVI, husband to cake-enthusiast Marie Antoinette, declared that “nobody is allowed to have a bigger one than me” and limited the size to a 16″x 16″square.
In the 19th century, it became fashionable for gentlemen to wear two-piece suits, but to display the handkerchief as a status symbol continued in the form of the pocket square. Although this is now distinct from the handkerchief, the tradition of wearing pocket squares began in veneration of the handkerchief. That’s why the pocket square is worn on the top left breast pocket, away from the miscellaneous contents of your pocket.
A pocket square is not a handkerchief, although it carries all the markers of refinement that handkerchiefs of yore communicated. Generally, in keeping with the tradition, it’s made of a lush fabric, like silk, and embroidered, embossed or printed as an accessory that distinguishes its wearer as a gentleman with a fine sense of fashion.
The 20th Century – the peak and decline of the handkerchief
Handkerchiefs were everywhere as an accessory in the early 20th century. The industrial revolution had led to more economical methods of processing materials and manufacturing products, including handkerchiefs. They had become a necessary part of life for men and women, young and old.
Hankies were no longer made from silk and lace as decorative accessories. They could be mass-produced out of cheaper textiles, like cloth or cotton. Handkerchiefs served the practical purpose of taking care of sniffles, sneezes and wipes, in addition to being fashion statements, or embellishments such as pocket squares.
But two things happened that halted the story of the hankie in the twentieth century. During the First World War, the world was struck by a global flu pandemic of 1918’s. Capitalizing on the fact that this pandemic was still very recent history in the world’s collective memory, and that people carried possibly contagious germs on their person, the Kleenex slogan “Don’t carry a cold in your pocket” was ingenious marketing for new disposable facial tissues.
With the “Roaring 20’s” of post-war economic growth, more disposable income meant that there was an appetite for innovation. These facial tissues had been around for a while as a convenient way for a woman to remove makeup at the end of the day.
Handkerchiefs continued to exist throughout the 20th century in fashion and as a practical accessory but their widespread use dramatically tailed off as disposable facial tissues came to dominate the market.
Who doesn’t love a comeback story?
In recent years, the handkerchief has seen a resurgence of interest. Partly due to an appreciation of vintage and retro fashion and partly because people are more aware of the problems of disposable, single-use tissues. I also like to think that innovations like the HankyBook, which provide a new shape and function for the handkerchief, is a big reason why the humble hanky is making a comeback.
We hope you enjoyed this history of the handkerchief. If you are interested in any other information, we have a truly epic handkerchief resource that covers just about everything you can think of.
Okay, well that wasn’t particularly helpful, was it? Here’s how I’d define a handkerchief:
The handkerchief is (typically) a square piece of hemmed cloth that is primarily used for personal hygiene, as a clothing accessory, or carried as a handy multi-functional “tool” that can help solve everyday challenges. It has a long history but tremendous staying power and, if anything, its value proposition today may be more important than ever.
In this resource I will provide links to everything you could wish to know about the handkerchief:
Types of handkerchiefs
Where to shop
Other Names for Handkerchiefs
I’m a big fan of the “hanky” or “hankie” but here are some other alternative names:
Snot rag (ewww)
The Benefits of Handkerchiefs
In the modern context, there are reasons why I think the handkerchief is more important than ever.
Handkerchiefs get a bad rap when it comes to personal hygiene. People think of blowing a nose into one, stuffing it into a bag or pocket and then germs are everywhere.
Yes, using a hanky in this way is definitely not hygienic but neither is having crumpled tissue papers everywhere. Ultimately, it comes down to how you use them. You can go into greater detail with the link below.
Of course, the HankyBook was created to make hanky’s more hygienic by default, thanks to its book-shaped form that stops germs and ick from spreading.
If environmentalism and zero waste mean anything to you then you’ll probably be aware of the problem with single-use tissues. The amount of energy and resources that go into an item that, when used properly, ends up in the trash moments later is just staggering.
The major benefit of handkerchiefs is that they are more environmentally friendly. They can be used for years – in fact, they tend to get softer with age, so they’ll be even kinder to your skin as time goes on.
And to clean then, just a quick toss in with your next wash and they’re ready to go again. If you get a hanky with 100% organic cotton, like the HankyBook, even better!
A handkerchief is just very handy to have in your back pocket or bag. View below for the Common Uses section as I discuss the plethora of use cases for handkerchiefs.
Style & Sentiment
Because a handkerchief can be part of your life for many years, or decades, it can become a part of your life. Whether it becomes your child’s comfort blanket, or was there to wipe away a loved one’s tears, or upgrade your style on a big date.
The primary purpose of the handkerchief is wiping one’s nose, blowing into it, catching sneezes – basically, it’s there to help your nose. I’d also put covering your mouth when coughing into the same personal hygiene category.
There is a distinct secondary use as a purely decorative accessory, such as a pocket square adding a bit of style to a suit pocket, or as part of a folk-dance in the Balkans and Middle East.
Finally, there is another bucket of uses that I’d just call: life. The hanky has a wide range of practical purposes from wiping away sweat, spills or makeup, to cover your face from dust. Stemming blood flow, creating an icepack, protecting your brow from the sun, filtering dirty liquid – honestly, there are so many uses of the handkerchief I’d be here all day listing them out.
Of course, I encourage you to do your own research. Etsy is a great resource and of course, you can’t beat local thrift and vintage shops.
You can also shop HankyBooks in our online store
Popular Handkerchief Fabrics
If you’re planning to use your hanky for personal hygiene, softness is going to be a big consideration as well as durability and absorbency. I recommend soft organic cotton that meets those three requirements. Always give it a wash first, which will help release the stiffness – and over time it will get even softer.
These days handkerchiefs are made from the following fabrics.
The History of the Handkerchief
From 1000 BC China to the Middle East and Victorian times – the handkerchief has a storied history as any piece of clothing or garment.
I covered a great deal of this handkerchief history in the guide below, including why I think it will still be around for centuries to come.
Whether it’s to keep germs trapped, or style for a pocket, handkerchief folding is something I get asked about a lot. HankyBook started with an intricate hanky folding method, so the art of folding is close to our hearts.
To help you familiarize yourself with different handkerchief folding techniques, I created the following guides:
It feels funny to talk about joining the handkerchief movement, given the centuries-long history of the handkerchief, but – screw it – that’s what I’m going to do!
I truly believe they are better than facial tissues in almost every way. Everyone should carry a handkerchief, because they’re kinder on the nose, on the planet, and are very handy when life throws spills your way.
Once you’re an owner and a convert, consider introducing them to family and friends. The right handkerchief will make a great gift.
People with runny noses know how many disposable tissues (and sleeves!) they go through. It’s even worse for people like me who suffer from a chronic runny nose.
I’m a big believer in the fact that the humble handkerchief is a much more sustainable alternative to facial tissues. Handkerchiefs are fun, fashionable, functional, and above all, friendly to the planet.
“Now hold on,” I hear you say. “Isn’t it gross and unsanitary to be walking around all day with a cloth of snot in your pocket?” Well, it CAN be, if you don’t know how to fold a handkerchief properly.
Here’s how to fold a handkerchief for back pocket ease of use and, more importantly, to prevent the “ick” factor and the spread of germs.
The ways to fold a hanky for your back pocket
The point of folding your handkerchief properly is for sanitary reasons and practical reasons. When you’re blowing your nose, you want to have a large enough and thick enough surface area to take care of even the most fearsome sneeze you can muster.
Here is a method for folding your handkerchief that will always keep two layers of fabric between your nose and your hands. This would make sure that your hanky traps almost all of the airborne particles in the fabric.
Place your handkerchief on a flat surface
Fold it in half
Fold the left side of the handkerchief in to the center point, and do the same for the right side
Holding the middle of the handkerchief at the center point of the left and the right-hand side, raise it and fold it in half horizontally, tucking the fold underneath
Finally, fold it in half vertically, creating a perfect square.
With this method, you’ll be creating a little book with sleeves that are thick enough to prevent contamination and provide a new sleeve for every sneeze or sniffle. It should fit perfectly into your back pocket with ease.
The problem with the back pocket fold
I used the above method for a long time and I can admit that it works under perfect conditions. But life is not a series of overlapping perfect conditions.
Sometimes you absentmindedly put your keys or wallet in the pocket that you’re keeping your perfectly folded handkerchief in. And you’ll find that it loses its shape and careful folds through the day.
Besides, you’re not always going to have a flat surface available to refold your hanky. And even if you did, refolding your hanky in this way when it’s half used presents its own set of icky problems when it comes to contamination, not to mention the spectacle of having to fold a soiled handkerchief in public. ‘Snot cool!
This is when inspiration struck and I came up with the pre-“folded” HankyBook.
HankyBook: No folding required
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Having struggled with allergies and a runny nose for most of my life, I found that facial tissues weren’t the answer. Besides being unsustainable and expensive in the long run, the constant abrasion of the tissue paper on my sensitive skin caused redness, swelling, and inflamed my allergies.
Handkerchiefs are a more sustainable solution for me, but the folding solution is not perfect.
It was the right idea, but the wrong vessel.
So I got some cotton sleeves together, dusted off my sewing machine, and bound the sleeves together inside of a cover. New sneeze, new page.
The idea behind this is to prevent contamination and contain sniffles, wipe up spills, clean makeup, or replace any of the functions of facial tissues or handkerchiefs. The fact that it’s a “book” with sleeves means that it will free you from the fuss and hassle of folding it, or worrying about what to do when it unfolds through your day.
Best of all, it fits in my pocket ready to be easily pulled out and used at a moment’s notice. No fumbling around for a clean sleeve of a handkerchief, ruining the careful folding process that you can’t easily repeat when you’re on the go, in the office, or in your car. And when you get home, just pop it in the washer to clean it.
Then it caught on
People kept asking me where I bought my very first prototype Hankybook when I used it. I was very surprised at the level of interest among my friends and family, so I made a few more.
Eventually, I launched a successful crowdfunding campaign and we were off to the races. Before I knew it, enquiries were coming in from all corners of the country for HankyBooks.
If you have an issue with sniffles and you’re concerned with the spread of germs, and if you’re tired of facial tissues that are destructive to the planet, maybe you should try the Hankybook. It’s the evolution of the handkerchief, without the “ick” factor.
Now you know how to fold a handkerchief. And why a HankyBook means you may not have to worry about folding at all!
But before I leave you, if you’re interested in hankie folding, you may also be curious how to fold a pocket square for a suited breast pocket. That’s one thing HankyBook was definitely not made for.
As luck would have it, I have a pocket square guide for that right here – 7 folding methods (at different difficulty levels) with photos so you can add some style to your next event.
I hope you found this article useful. Feel free to share it with friends who you think may see the light – the more reusable hanky converts the better for the environment!
The answer will vary depending on whether you have allergies, the season of the year, or other factors. But the answer is probably “A LOT” and the box of disposable facial tissues in your home right now is evidence of it.
It wasn’t always like this. Facial tissues became all the rage as an alternative to handkerchiefs in the early 20th century when the novelty and convenience of a disposable handkerchief had no consideration for the environment. Since then the disposable facial tissue industry has boomed to the moon.
There’s nothing wrong with big companies who produce tissue paper making profits from their products. They have fulfilled a need and that’s why a company like Kleenex has been successful since the year it introduced its disposable facial tissues nearly 100 years ago in 1924.
But as we enter a time of more responsible and eco-friendly practices, we have to ask the important questions in the age of sustainability:
Is tissue paper eco-friendly?
Is tissue paper biodegradable?
Is the process of manufacturing tissue paper sustainable?
Are there alternatives to tissue paper?
Let’s find out.
How facial tissues are made
The majority of facial tissue paper is made from virgin wood pulp. The trees are logged, cut into chips, and then ground into flakes.
These flakes are mixed into pulp by combining them with a large amount of water. Chemical additives such as bleach are then used to soften, strengthen, and color the paper. This pulp is then poured onto massive steam-heated drums to dry the paper, before the tissue is placed on a heated roller to dry the fabric.
This fabric is cut to shape, portioned, packaged in wrapping machines, and finally, packed for distribution.
From seed to store, the manufacturing process of tissue paper is an energy-intensive, water-wasting, and chemically infused operation.
In short: entire plantations are grown for the purpose of being cut down so that we can blow our noses and then throw the tissue in the trash.
Is tissue paper biodegradable?
The short answer to a complicated question is yes, most tissues are biodegradable and compostable. The raw component of facial tissues is wood fibers or recycled material, natural raw materials that will eventually decompose.
However, the additives used to reinforce the paper mean that it can take anywhere from weeks to many months to fully decompose. Environmental factors like exposure to light, air, and humidity also play a key role.
It’s worth noting that most tissue paper is wrapped in plastic. This plastic will take a much longer time to decompose when disposed of. The plastic wrap of the tissue box can resist breaking down into its chemical components for many decades, clogging up landfills and littering landscapes long after the paper products themselves have biodegraded.
Can tissue paper make my allergies worse?
Facial tissues can worsen acne if you have sensitive skin. This is particularly bad if your tissues are scented. Of course, when you have a runny nose, the constant abrasion of tissue paper on the delicate skin of your mouth and nose area can cause swelling, redness, and irritation.
Is tissue paper toxic?
Next time you’re in the store, or if you have a box of Kleenex handy, take a look at the ingredients. Go on.
You’ll find that it contains ingredients such as Parafinum (a petroleum product), isopropyl palmitate (a notorious pore clogger), and dioxins that are released into the environment as facial tissues decompose. Some brands continue to manufacture tissues containing formaldehyde, classified as a “probable human carcinogen” by the EPA.
Is tissue paper recyclable?
Unfortunately, most tissue paper is not recyclable. Once they come into contact with body fluids, grease and food waste they cannot be easily “cleaned” in the recycling process. This is the same story for napkins, toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates, etc.
What is the safest way to dispose of tissue paper?
Facial tissues should not be flushed away. They do not degrade safely in septic systems and can cause clogging and blockages.
If you want to get rid of your tissue paper without throwing it in the trash, a home compost in your garden is your best bet.
The facial tissue alternative
There is no “Planet B”, so we have to make a Plan B for our wasteful habits. Using something once and throwing it away is not sustainable. Making better buying decisions in the store definitely helps, for example choosing facial tissues that are tree-free – although this type of tissue paper can be really rough on the nose. They certainly don’t work for my sensitive nose.
In my view, the ultimate facial tissue paper alternative is the cotton handkerchief. That’s right, we’re going full circle – a throwback to the OG.
Handkerchiefs can be used, washed, and reused hundreds of times. In fact, the longer you have them the softer they get. Just toss them in with your wash and they are good to go – again and again.
They are a timeless way to take care of sniffles, coughs, colds, runny noses and any spills in a way that doesn’t harm the planet. Handkerchiefs are easily the more sustainable option than facial tissues.
OK, but isn’t walking around with a pocket of snot all day unsanitary?
There’s using a handkerchief, and then there’s using a handkerchief properly – I created a video hanky folding guide and there are plenty others online.
The basic principle is to fold the handkerchief in such a way that you have a new, fresh compartment to blow your nose into with every use. Proper folding of the handkerchief prevents the “ick” factor that you’re thinking of.
In fact, it was this folding method that inspired me to create HankyBook – a little book where each soft cotton page is a fresh sleeve to blow your nose or take care of any number of little spills that life can throw at you. It’s bound between a protective cover, so it easily slips into your pocket or bag.
Hankybook is much more sustainable and environmentally friendly than facial tissues. It’s a practical and eco-friendly alternative to facial tissues.
If you’re of an eco-friendly mindset, it makes sense to either compost your used tissues or start switching to reusable handkerchiefs. We live in a world full of waste – particularly when it comes to plastic and paper products.
Every small step helps to change habits and reduce the impact on our planet. Are you ready to take that step?
Not only is the constant sniffling a pain, but all the wiping and blowing can lead to your already delicate nose being rubbed raw. Ugh.
At least we have the softness and absorbency of organic cotton handkerchiefs to see us through these troubling times!
Hankies? You mean tissues, right?
Nope. Where have you been? Paper tissues are old news!
Let’s look at the facts. Tissues are:
Terrible for the environment
A single-use tissue takes so many resources to end up in your hand. And then a quick honk on your nose-horn and they go straight in the bin. Or the landfill because recycling tissue paper is actually not easy.
And tissues are made of paper, you know. You’re basically wiping your nose on thousands and thousands of trees!
Hankies, however, are clearly the more sustainable option, mostly because they are reusable. Made out of soft, organic cotton, just toss your handkerchief in the wash to be used over and over again – making the impact lighter on your wallet and on the planet!
People tend to think of tissues as more hygienic than hankies – you simply blow your nose and toss them safely in the bin along with the germs, right?
In theory, yes. But think about it this way: you’re at the supermarket, out at the park, or busy typing away on that new report when you have to blow your nose… are you getting up to find a bin? Or are you quickly tossing it wherever is handy – your bag, your desk, etc?
A bunch of snotty rags stashed in your handbag? Uh… no thanks.
At least handkerchiefs can be folded to keep germs trapped – or just use a HankyBook.
And very unstylish
These days, it’s all about individuality. You can customize everything from your nails to your phone cover to your face mask… so why stick with boring old tissues?
Handkerchiefs, on the other hand, offer an endless range of styles and variations. From a crisp, simple option, to the bright and funky ones, hankies are the perfect way to express your unique sense of style.
Is organic cotton better than cotton?
Is there really that much of a difference? You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to etc.
Okay, seriously – who actually says po-tah-to? Probably the same kind of person who thinks organic and non-organic cotton is the same! Let’s look at the reality of non-organic cotton:
The main difference between organic and non-organic cotton is how it’s grown. As the world’s most popular material, it can be difficult for farmers to keep up with demand, leading quite a few to resort to artificial ways of speeding up the process.
While organic cotton is grown naturally, non-organic often makes use of… synthetic chemicals.
It may not seem like that big of a deal, but the use of certain chemicals and pesticides can irritate skin and potentially disturb the earth’s soil and water balance.
Less than pure
Non-organic cotton is usually machine-picked, meaning the purity and integrity of the fibers can become lost or damaged.
Hand-picked organic cotton, on the other hand, retains the purity and softness of the cotton, which leads us to our next point…
And just plain itchy
If you want softness and durability in your cotton products, organic is the way to go. Free from irritating chemicals, environmentally damaging herbicides, and hand=picked for strength and purity, this is the only material you want near your nose!
The best organic cotton handkerchiefs
Well, first of all, you definitely want a handkerchief that is made from organic, breathable cotton. Not only are organically sourced hankies better for the environment, but the soft cotton material is also gentle on the skin and ultra-absorbent.
Second of all: why stop at just one? Get a bunch and mix and match your stylish accessories!
So, with that in mind, let’s look at some of the best organic cotton handkerchiefs for all types of people:
Did you know that back in Roman times, hankies were considered luxury items? It makes sense: dainty, elegant and ever so chic, a hanky is the ultimate fashion accessory.
Whether you’re discreetly dabbing away a tear, touching up your makeup, or just love cute swathes of cotton, today’s hankies can be just as elegant and feminine as when our ancestors used them. Just take a look at these pretty pastels or these floral stunners. Throw in this vintage handkerchief and you’ll truly have a stylish hanky for every occasion.
The problem solver
One doesn’t exactly think of organic handkerchiefs in terms of innovation – but they never met me.
An engineer background
A passion for creating sustainable products
A runny nose that never says quit
Those three things were the impetus behind my creating HankyBook’s soft, sustainably sourced, super soft organic cotton “pages” in the form of a book shape that is easy to use AND keeps germs from spreading.
Hankies aren’t just for sneezes, you know. They can also be used to mop up grease spills from your motorbike, the sweat from your brow after a long day of work, or even a tear or two…
Hey, it’s 2021, there’s nothing wrong with shedding a few manly tears!
Especially not when you’re wiping them away with a stylish, masculine option like this one or this one. While bold, darker colors and classic square shapes are timeless, don’t be afraid to let loose and play around with a few polka dots!
The green queen (or king!)
As mentioned above, cotton hankies are great for the environment, especially when certified organic and made out of 100% cotton.
It stands to reason then that any eco-friendly warrior worth their salt would naturally be a fan of these clean and green anti-germ machines. And, with a large variety of plain, patterned or downright unique options to choose from, caring about the planet has never looked this good!
Some people just radiate individuality and charm. They never follow trends – they set them! So, if you are someone who marches to the beat of their own drum – why not blow your nose to your very own personalized handkerchief?
You can customize your hanky with anything from your name to an important date to a favorite quote or saying. Not only will you be blowing your nose or wiping up spills in style, but you’ll also be able to express your personality in a truly unique way. One thing’s for certain: there’s only one of you in the world and only one of your hanky!
The humble hankie has many uses – from blowing your nose to cleaning your hands, to mopping up life’s many little spills and mishaps. Not only are they soft, absorbent and stylish – they’re cost-effective and eco-friendly too. Not bad for a little piece of fabric!
Remember, when choosing a hanky, try to pick out one that is 100% certified organic cotton. Your nose, wallet, and planet will thank you!