The History of a Lady’s Handkerchief

The history of the handkerchief and its uses by a lady are vast.

I was inspired to write this post by a scan of an article I saw on the website Inherited Values, a great website for reading random articles about antiques and the history of stuff. The scan came from a 1940 Modern Woman magazine and it read…”Historians credit Marie Antoinette with the invention of the pocket handkerchief. She was so broken up at leaving her home in Austria that she cried all the way to France and wiped her eyes with bits of lace torn from her dress and lingerie. Anticipating future tears, she made it a point always to have a piece of lace tucked in a pocket of her dress. This, say the historians, was how handkerchiefs were born.

That is such a cute and beautiful story. I would not expect anything less from a 1940s women’s magazine. The romance that surrounded writing for women of the time is priceless, but it is of course a load of you-know-what.


Image courtesy of

According to, “The earliest written evidence of the handkerchief comes from the Roman poet Catullus in the first century A.D. Most often called a sudarium, from sudor, to sweat, it was used to shield or veil the face and mouth and to wipe off sweat. In the first century B.C., it remained a luxury for the rich, due to the expensive nature of linen, which was then a prized import. By the first century A.D., when linen was more easily and cheaply imported, the middle and lower classes gained access to the handkerchief.”

That is not to say that  Marie Antoinette did not have her little say about handkerchiefs. Lena Weber writing for tells us, “Up until the 18th century, the handkerchief came in many shapes from square to round or triangular. It is said that one day at Versailles, the French queen Marie-Antoinette made the observation that the squared form would be more aesthetically pleasing and convenient, prompting Louis XVI to publish a decree ordering that the length of handkerchiefs produced in France would have to be equal to their width.”


Handkerchiefs during their existence have been used for many things like greeting someone, cleaning your hands, face, or teeth, wiping your tears and nose, applying perfume, and have even been used to signal to a gentleman that you would like to meet him or given to him as a token of your affection.

Of course now we have kleenex and napkins and hand towels and so rarely use the handkerchief for the many useful things it can do, but there are still so many beautiful vintage handkerchiefs out there. Every time I see them in an antique store, I want to buy them. Then I think, “What will I do with it other then drape it on something purely for show?” I can only stand so many hankies draped around my house. I am not really a shabby chic gal and there are only a couple places I can think of that would be appropriate in my house for these vintage beauty tools.

Then I found this very cute website with all kinds of ideas of things to do with these girlie strips of history. Nanalulu’s Linen Closet has a bunch of ideas on what to do with them. I am going to try the Rosette pin made from a hankie. Now I don’t have to pass them by anymore!

Here are some more interesting articles about the history of women’s beauty tools:

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  1. Handkerchiefs are so pretty, even though they’re pretty unsanitary! Carrying one just wouldn’t be feasible with my allergies, but oh if it was!

  2. I started carrying handkerchiefs several years ago, and I love having them. In your last image on the post, where is the black and white photo of the lady waving her handkerchief from? It’s beautiful.

  3. This design is spectacular! You obviously know how to keep
    a reader amused. Between your wit and your videos, I was
    almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Wonderful job.
    I really loved what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it.
    Too cool!

  4. Hey! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout
    out and say I genuinely enjoy reading through your blog posts.
    Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that go over the same subjects?

    Thanks a ton!

Comments are closed.

Welcome to the Bobby Pin Blog! I am Lauren Rennells and as a hairstylist, makeup artist, writer, and generally artistic over-achiever, the Bobby Pin Blog is my outlet for thoughts and research about vintage hair and makeup trends and how to recreate them today. Thank you for stopping by!

As an Etsy and Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases. As an independent blogger, I link these items because of my own opinions and not because of the commission I may receive.



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