Hungarian linen hankerchief circa 1940s
Egyptians used them. So did Romans and Greeks. Medieval knights coveted them. Catullus, Shakespeare and James Fenimore Cooper wrote about them. Penniless in Paris, Post- Impressionist Chinese painter Pan Yuliang embroidered them for the Gallerie Lafayette. With the advent of Kleenex these little squares of embellished fabric vanished from fashionable pockets to become nothing more than collectors items.
Last year, Hannah Carlson, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Boston University, where she is completing her dissertation on the cultural history of the pocket and pocketed possessions in nineteenth century America, wrote an impressive article on handkerchiefs for Cooper’s attempts to market his novella, The Autobiography of a Handkerchief, which eventually appeared as a serial in the 1843 January to April issues of Graham’s Magazine. Having valued many antique furnishings and clothing for the stories they embody, as well as for their quality, I find Cooper’s idea intriguing. After all pocket handkerchiefs have been, primarily, objects of beauty, rather than practical items. Though far from flourishing as it did in earlier times, the manufacture of fine embroidered handkerchiefs endures to this day in some Asian, European, and Latin American countries and perhaps it might experience a worldwide revival as more of us embrace to a greener lifestyle. More and more young greenies try to distance themselves from a culture that cherishes throw away objects. Whether this means that they will start carrying lacy handkerchiefs to match their hybrid cars remains to bee seen. If they do, I plan to be ready. I have a stash of Irish linen beauties Desdemona herself would have loved.