A hankering for hankies

It never fails. Whenever I'm with my friend Dawn, and I pull out a handkerchief to blow my nose, she remarks with amusement that I'm the only person she knows who "still uses those things." You'd think I was wearing white lollipop, waist-high panties under hip-hugger jeans, rather than valiantly carrying the torch of Old World etiquette forward.

It's true. I rarely see others unfurling hankies. It can be a chore to even find one to buy, unless you've got the time to rifle through bins in vintage or second-hand stores. But whether they're plain, printed, lacy, embroidered, or crocheted - I love them all.

An eBay search proved I'm not the only one with a weakness for what's described as "Old Ladies" handkerchiefs. I found a stunning 1940s floral collection for sale - hot pinks juxtaposed with lime greens. But each time I placed a bid, another bidder would one-up me. And she proved far more tenacious. But then, I'm no hankie "collector." I buy them to use them.

Handkerchiefs weren't originally made for blowing noses. If history books have it right, the ancient Chinese were the first to cover their heads with pieces of cloth. Then came the early Romans with "sudariums" for wiping perspiration off their brows. In the 1400s, the French reintroduced small cloths as a fashion accessory. But it was the English who gave them the name "kerchiefs" and pronounced it only proper that children use kerchiefs instead of wiping their noses on their shirt sleeves.

I think I developed my fondness for handkerchiefs from my mother. Now, like her, I'm always stuffing a handkerchief into my bag or pocket before going out. They usually end up in a crumpled ball in the deepest recesses of my clothing. Some go through the wash that way.

But unlike tissues, cloth handkerchiefs never leave their shredded remains behind, affixed to the other freshly washed clothes.

Unfortunately, that same Bermuda Triangle that makes socks vanish into thin air has the same attraction for handkerchiefs.

I've lost a ton of them. Some made their getaway when I pulled out my wallet or keys and they tumbled out, too. Others, I swear, never emerge from the washing machine. Those that do, have havoc wreaked upon them by dryers. Their delicate fibers fray, the crocheted edges unravel. Some I refuse to toss even when I should be embarrassed to publicly display such raggedy things.

But you get so attached: Like that favorite one I once had with the galloping cowboys racing across it. And, of course, any hankie with a floral design on a chocolate background is pulled out from the neat stack in my top dresser drawer, and used first.

I refuse to iron them, no matter how wrinkly they get. Synthetics are also a no-no. I have been desperate enough to purchase men's handkerchiefs, but they're way too large. It's like putting a dinner napkin up to your nose. Plus they have no personality.

That has never been the case with women's handkerchiefs. In fact, during the height of hankie popularity in the 19th century, young women employed them as a crafty means of communicating with their suitors. Putting a hankie to the right cheek meant "yes," while holding it to the left cheek indicated "no." Drawing a hankie across the forehead warned that others were watching. And if a woman was so bold as to throw her hankie over her shoulder, it was a signal for him to follow her.

But all that changed once its nemesis, the paper tissue, arrived. Initially marketed in the 1920s as a sanitary means to remove cold cream and makeup, they signaled the beginning of the end. Now you're more likely to find hankies framed on the wall than stashed in a purse.

After my mother passed away, my sisters and I discovered hankies peppered throughout her belongings: Stuffed in the pockets of her clothes. Folded neatly in her purses. And in one drawer I found a hidden cache with lacy trimmings, some monogrammed with her initials and even my grandma's. I couldn't believe my good fortune. Naturally, no one wanted them but me.

But then, I also claimed her old windup watches.

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