Remnants From a Thrifty Past

Small collectibles, like handkerchiefs, remain popular with fans of yesteryear. Though I’m a child of the post-hankie age, my mother had a whole drawer of the delicacies and after she passed away, I was happy to give the drawer, brimming with fine linens, a new home.

Maybe it’s because I remember learning to iron – I was given the task of pressing the flat stuff, like the handkerchiefs, tea towels and pillowcases – that I appreciate ladies’ handkerchiefs so much. (I ironed the guys’ hankies, too, but those huge white squares weren’t nearly as interesting.)

Ladies’ handkerchiefs feature lots of details and designs, like embroidering, decals, lace and fancy embellishments and come in all colors and prints. Handkerchiefs also were mementos of places or events and are often marked with souvenir statements. Given as gifts, handkerchiefs might be embroidered with messages like “Happy Birthday” or “I Love You.”

The popular paper tissue that replaced the necessary hankie was developed in 1924 and first marketed as a make-up removal tool. It was endorsed by famous movie stars of the era like Jean Harlow and Helen Hayes.

Once consumers began using the new paper tissues for disposable hankies, the obvious advantage of a throw-away choice was embraced and Kleenex began to market its new product.

Even though these quaint little fabric squares are no longer packed in every purse, hankies are still used today in some cultures and as fashion statements. Bandanas, for example, which are a form of hankies, remain popular as head or neck gear with all ages. There are also examples of crafts or household goods like curtains or quilts made with vintage hankies.

But for collectors, hankies are great because they are affordable and fun. You can easily pick up nice vintage examples at antique shops, second-hand stores or resell stores. Often they are displayed with household linens or vintage clothing and accessories. Select these little gems by examining the condition, of course, but also look at the hand versus machine stitching, the quality of the cloth and the overall design of the work. There are some lovely examples out there.

Or you might choose to collect one theme of hankie, like holiday, florals or travel hankies. Bridal hankies are an especially lovely theme, too, with many types of lace and white embroidery. Rare examples are those that date to the 1800s or involve a particular moment in time, like the 1912 travel on the Titantic example, which sold for $399, according to information I found online while researching this column.

Other common versions I’ve found priced at $5to $15 online, but I’m sure the actual value depends greatly on your marketplace location. Of course, these examples were all in great shape, without stains, tears or wear.

The most common fabric for handkerchiefs is cotton or linen, but other examples can be found in silk and satin. Size varies, too; a hankie can be quite small, perhaps three or four inches square or as large as ane 18-inch-square men’s version.

If you’re interested in exploring the hankie habit with enthusiasm, I’d advise getting a copy of the book, “Printed & Lace Handkerchiefs: Interpreting a Popular 20th-Century Collectible,” a Schiffer Collectors book that I found to be helpful. It has loads of color photos and describes hankies by decade and shape. There are facts and figures for pricing information. It’s a 2003 volume so you might have to get it second hand.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at: or by writing in care of this newspaper.