Some 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 these historians, was how handkerchiefs were born.That is such a cute and beautiful story. The romance that surrounded writing for women of the time is priceless, but it is of course a load of you-know-what.
According to margaretroedesigns.com, "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 mienmagazine.com 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. And of course, beautiful new ones too. But I'm biased of course.