Saturday, November 12, 2011

Life's Lost Little Luxuries #3: The Hankie

Someone's grandma made these

Excuse me, but the whole idea of using a handkerchief to actually blow your nose is disgusting. And to think we carried that handkerchief around all day and stuck it in a pocket or a purse... yuck! But before we became a nation of germaphobes (see Life's Lost Little Luxuries #2: The Bubblebath) hankies were part of the fabric of life and considered an Accessory worth thinking about. 

Like bubble bath, a handkerchief made a great gift. It was the no-brainer teacher gift. It was not a huge drain on the piggy bank for a gift. Amazingly, your mother always needed a new one (at least that's what she told you). A souvenir handkerchief from a trip made a great gift as well. I remember trolling the linen shops on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach trying to decide on just the right one for Mom (because you know she always needed a new one).

I had little girl handkerchiefs for little girl-sized noses. They were mostly storybook characters and days-of-the-week. My mother's handkerchiefs were the best, though. She preferred modern prints by the likes of Vera or solid colors in off shades of puce or aubergine with delicate hand-rolled hems. My job, you see, was to iron the handkerchiefs. It was a chore I actually enjoyed because each one was a little piece of art or told a story. The more it straightened in the ironing the more of the art/story was revealed. My father's handkerchiefs were bigger, though, and pretty dull. I liked the occasional stripes or plaids for relief from the boring white. The work was done relatively quickly so I could get out of that dank basement and go play.

My dad's old (I presume) handkerchiefs were also what you got if you had a cold— a big, disgusting stay-home-from-school cold.

Kleenex was invented in 1924, adapted from a cheesecloth-like fabric that had been used in gas masks during WWI. It was first promoted as a handkerchief substitute in 1930 with the slogan, "Don't carry a cold in your pocket". So why by 1950 were the Ruskin family— and a lot of others— still using handkerchiefs? Old habits die hard, no doubt. Kleenex, like many disposables, was considered a luxury item even to middle class families. My mother had a box for removing makeup, but that was it. When the little packets came around— so cute and only a nickel— well, that was the death knell for the handkerchief.

Today hankies are really style conceits— added for fun to the pocket of a vintage dress or someone playing Madge in a waitress uniform at Halloween. I've seen them turned into beautiful patchwork coverlets, little dolls or overprinted with invitations like "Won't you be my bridesmaid?" They still attract my attention at flea markets and thrift shops. But like a lot of rummaging, I'm looking for the ones I remember as a child. Those are no doubt landfill in northern Ohio.

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