What is a Handkerchief?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A handkerchief is a square of cloth carried in the pocket for the purpose of wiping the hands, face, or nose. Over the centuries since its inception, the handkerchief has significantly evolved, and many people today use handkerchiefs as accessories, rather than functional items. Whether the intent is functional or decorative, handkerchiefs are available at many department stores, in a variety of styles. They can also be made by hand, using materials available from fabric stores.

Handkerchiefs are preferable environmentally for blowing one's nose than paper tissues.
Handkerchiefs are preferable environmentally for blowing one's nose than paper tissues.

Some form of the handkerchief dates back to Greek and Roman times, when high-ranking members of society would carry silk cloths to wipe their hands with before eating. Ceremonial uses of the handkerchief also emerged around this time, with women giving handkerchiefs to admirers as tokens of affection. Sometimes handkerchiefs were also used to signal the start of an event, with the highest-ranking official present signaling the start by dropping a handkerchief. In the medieval era, handkerchiefs played a role in jousting and other competitive events, where they were used as starting signals and tokens of loyalty from supporters of particular competitors.

Handkerchiefs might be used to help a person keep their face clean.
Handkerchiefs might be used to help a person keep their face clean.

Classically, handkerchiefs are large squares of silk, cambric, linen, or cotton, although other materials may be used as well. The material is typically reasonably absorbent, as a reminder of the function of a handkerchief, and the cloth may be monogrammed with the initials of the owner. Decorative trim is also common on handkerchiefs, and these squares can come in a range of colors, although white is the traditional choice.

Men sometimes wear handkerchiefs in their breast pockets, in which case the handkerchiefs are known as pocket squares. There are a number of ways to fold a pocket square, ranging from a simple squared fold to an elaborate puffed fold. Formal pointed folds are often worn with dress suits, and some companies even make faux pocket squares from pieces of cardboard and fabric which are designed to look like a neatly folded pocket square when placed in a breast pocket.

Some people believe that using a handkerchief is unhygienic. In fact, handkerchiefs are perfectly sanitary, since they are washed on a regular basis, preferably after each wearing. Handkerchiefs are also more environmentally sound than paper tissues used to blow the nose and wipe the face, and they are gentler on the skin. In a prolonged cold, handkerchiefs are less likely to irritate the nose than tissues, which tend to scratch the nose and turn it bright red.

Handkerchiefs are large squares of silk, cambric, linen, or cotton, traditionally used for blowing or wiping the nose.
Handkerchiefs are large squares of silk, cambric, linen, or cotton, traditionally used for blowing or wiping the nose.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

surreallife

Before tissue there was nothing else but cloth handkerchiefs. You would not leave the house without a handkerchief in your pocket.

There are so many pretty handkerchiefs, and there are several ideas one can use to actually display them, since we really do not use them these days.

Here are two ideas that I know of, one lady made a quilt out of them, and another framed a few of them individually and displayed them in that fashion.

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