When Handkerchiefs Were Fashionable

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2023 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Embroidered handkerchief.  Photo from the author.
Embroidered handkerchief.  Photo from the author.

In his holy flirtation with the world, God occasionally drops a handkerchief. These handkerchiefs are called saints.” Frederick Buechner

Whenever Mother napped on the couch, I did as most curious little girls are prone to do. I sneaked into my parents’ bedroom, sat down on the upholstered bench in front of Mother’s mirrored dressing table where I quietly riffled through her dressing table drawers fascinated with all her ladylike things: her pink Spoolies, her cherry red lipstick, her powdered compact, her scented sachets, and her ‘hankies.’

Her hankie drawer was always the first drawer I opened, fascinated with the different shapes, sizes, and colors. One by one, I picked up each carefully pressed hankie and unfolded it breathing in the soft lavender scent of Mother’s favorite perfume.

Some of her hankies were large squares--homemade creations she made from scraps of material from her many sewing projects. These hankies served a number of practical purposes: wiping away childhood tears, blowing noses, dabbing the sweat off her brow, or mopping up a small spill at the dining room table.

Other hankies were small and fancy, often embroidered with flowers while other’s had lacey edges. Some had special designs created for holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or Mother’s Day. These hankies were beautiful, fashionable store-bought, delicate creations that Mother placed inside her purse for ‘going out.’

Lacy hanky.
Lacy handkerchier.  Photo from the author.
Christmas Hanky.
 Christmas handkerchier.  Photo from the author.

As common as handkerchiefs were during the 50s and 60s, somewhere along the way, facial tissues became increasingly popular and made carrying a hankie in one’s purse no longer stylish or even necessary. In fact, by the end of the late 60s handkerchiefs were hard to find. Despite their scarcity, Mother always had a handkerchief in her purse and occasionally tied one to the strap of her purse, adding a spark of color or expressing her personality.

Decades have passed since my childhood, and I’ve long forgotten the simple pleasure of exploring Mother’s hankie drawer. One day while rummaging through her closet, I found a box tucked neatly in one corner. Curious, I pulled it down from the shelf and opened it, discovering some of Mother’s fancy handkerchiefs. I brought each one to my face bringing the memory of her closer to me, amazed that even after years of being stored inside that box, the handkerchiefs still smelt like Mother and her lavender soap.

I unfolded the white, lacey one remembering that she insisted I carry it in my bridal bouquet as something old. After my wedding, I took that handkerchief and made it a decorative item on top of my mother-in-law’s vintage secretarial desk—the one she gave me decades ago. The other two handkerchiefs were her Christmas hankies—ones she always used during the holidays. When the holidays roll around, I now do as she did. I retrieve her Christmas handkerchiefs from my dresser and carry them in my purse. I never actually use them, mind you. But having them with me invokes memories of my childhood and all things that were Mother.

When I’m missing her, there’s something quite comforting about opening my dresser and seeing her favorite embroidered hankie. I unfold it; and as a nod to her, I gently tie it around the strap of my purse remembering when I walked hand-in-hand beside her hoping I’d one day be as competent, beautiful, and fashionable as she was.

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