Check it out: Handkerchief history unfolds

That lovely square is nothing to sniff at



"The Printed Square: Vintage Handkerchief Patterns for Fashion and Design"

By Nicky Albrechtsen, Harper Design, 255 pages

“The Printed Square: Vintage Handkerchief Patterns for Fashion and Design”

By Nicky Albrechtsen, Harper Design, 255 pages

There was a time when a handkerchief was as much a part of one’s outfit as a pair of shoes. And it wasn’t exclusively a woman’s accessory. A man wearing a tailored suit wouldn’t think of going out into society with an empty breast pocket, or as Alan Flusser, an American menswear designer is quoted as saying, “Leaving a breast pocket unattended is like trying to spell ‘classic’ without the ‘class.'”

You might assume that the invention of Kleenex tissues sounded the beginning of the end for the humble hankie. Access to a less expensive, disposable product certainly impacted the destiny of cloth handkerchiefs. But it turns out that it took a little while for paper tissues to crowd out their more durable cousins. In the introduction to this week’s book “The Printed Square,” author Nicky Albrechtsen explains that World War II temporarily interrupted the forthcoming ubiquitous use of disposable tissues. Kimberly-Clark introduced Kleenex tissues in 1924 initially as a handy wipe for make-up removal. Hollywood celebrities’ endorsement of this new product sparked the public’s enthusiasm for Kleenex. But when the United States joined Allied forces during World War II, many American manufacturers, including Kimberly-Clark, directed their efforts to supporting U.S. troops. Kleenex tissues, instead of being sold to and used by the populace, were distributed to the military for use as sterile dressings for wounds.

But back to the traditional handkerchief. It’s been around for a very long time as evidenced by scraps of linen found in Egyptian tombs and exemplified by ornate cloths carried by Roman emperors. The handkerchief might appear to be an insignificant player in the course of human history, but when you read “The Printed Square” and learn that Marie Antoinette influenced her husband, King Louis XVI, to formally decree “the length of handkerchiefs shall equal their width throughout my entire kingdom,” their position on the scale of intriguing historical tidbits moves up a fair piece.

While things may have ended badly for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the handkerchief survived and continues to have a place in current society. Perhaps not as popular or as significant a role as before, but still used on occasion with menswear, and at least as a term to describe a pointy draped hemline in women’s fashion. Those who collect handkerchiefs have no trouble locating examples in local second-hand/antique stores, not to mention the entire world through online venues. Whatever your feelings are about “printed squares,” I hope that you’ll enjoy perusing this week’s charming title. It’s heavy on beautiful images, and light on scholarly text — perfect for a rainy afternoon.

Jan Johnston is the Collection Development Coordinator for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library District. Email her at