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(MariaBrzostowska/Thinkstock)
(MariaBrzostowska/Thinkstock)

The case for the handkerchief Add to ...

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by a reader. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

The hanky is back and I’m setting the trend.

As a recent retiree and well into my menopause, I have more time to spend at the family cottage clearing weeds from our boat slip. I sweat, a lot.

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I began tucking a man’s handkerchief into the waistband of my jeans. I mop my face with it while I work. Hormone replacement therapy might appeal to the executive woman suffering with hot flushes (flashes are breaking news stories), but in the non-threatening natural world of the countryside, a hanky does the job.

The return of the hanky could benefit our planet, falling into the same beneficial category as the recycled shopping bag. And so many forgotten hankies languish in bedside drawers that there’d be no need to manufacture any more of them.

I muse on the health of the planet while, handkerchief dangling, I rake weeds, for the lake currently delivers flotsam from around the world into our slip.

I fill and refill the wheelbarrow and push it along the road, then surreptitiously cross and empty my load into a farmer’s ditch. The odd dead fish makes the trip. I harbour no guilt; it’s all organic waste.

Tissue remains de rigueur for blowing the nose or blotting lipstick. When dressed for the city, I put a small, accessorized hanky into my bag along with a tiny mirror, lipstick and tissue.

If, in public, I begin to glow, I dab my forehead and chin with a clean, neatly ironed hanky. Blotting one’s face with a tissue would leave little white blobs behind. Modern etiquette allows for the application of lipstick in public if one is quick and discreet about it, so why not a few dabs with a hanky?

A large handkerchief accompanies me again whenever I am scraping and painting exterior walls. My husband owns an impressive supply, some monogrammed. His late father, a charming Frenchman, counselled his son always to carry a handkerchief, ‘si tu fais pleurer une femme’ (should you make a woman cry). My husband has never made me cry, though he is inclined to lounge in a hammock while I rake and paint.

In the 18th century, a lady in the presence of an attractive gentleman might decide to drop her hanky. He could then retrieve it and acquire the introduction necessary to further intercourse. This strikes me as another example, if outmoded, of a practical application for the hanky. But I am dating myself.

In more recently bygone days, stores actually specialized in handkerchiefs, such was the state of the market for them, just as today’s retailers may offer shoes or luggage exclusively. Prior to the invention of facial tissue, a handkerchief was as universal a possession as a toothbrush.

The Tenement Museum in New York recently unearthed the signage for a handkerchief manufacturer and wholesaler by the name of Zwaifler and Co. From 1920 to 1956, this Lower East Side business sold mainly scarves and handkerchiefs.

When word got around that I was collecting hankies, everyone unloaded their – or rather their mothers’ and grannies’ – hankies on me.

A hanky is not unlike a teacup. One hanky taken from a collection is a constant reminder of its former owner. The finest cotton lawn and linen hankies in my possession belonged to my English grandmother. Some of her hankies remained for decades in their original boxes.

A gift tag on one box is inscribed: To Doll from Mother W. “Doll” was married in 1924. She likely didn’t think much of her mother-in-law’s store-bought hankies. Her own mother was an expert needlewoman and had embroidered Doll’s hankies, table napkins and pillowcases for her wedding trousseau.

My 80-something mother-in-law is a modern Frenchwoman who prefers tissues. Upon learning of my penchant for hankies, she presented me with a bright stack taken from the back of her dressing table.

My favourite is a rakish little navy-blue cotton number with red-and-gold paisley trim. It peeks out from the back pocket of my yellow clamdiggers.

Some people deem the use of a hanky eccentric, old-fashioned or even chichi (chichi being defined by the Oxford Dictionary as attempting stylish elegance but achieving only an over-elaborate pretentiousness).

In middle age, though, one ceases to care what people think. One can still set a trend.

Kerry-Lynne Wilson lives in Ottawa.

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