Delicate Hankies — Nothing to Sneeze At

My mother had a whole drawer of delicate handkerchiefs and after she passed away, I was happy to give the drawer, brimming with fine examples, a new home.

Maybe it’s because when I learned 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 men’s hankies, too, but these 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 were also mementos of places or events and are often marked with souvenir statements.

Given as gifts, handkerchiefs might be embroidered with such messages as “Happy Birthday” or “I Love You.” Just this past week a dear friend gifted me with a few more examples of vintage hankies that include lace edges and other delicate details.

Disposable paper tissues that replaced the necessary hankie was developed in the year 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 unique crafts or household goods like curtains or quilts made with vintage hankies. For example, I have an apron made from new floral handkerchiefs that was a sewing project kit for young ladies in the mid-20th century.

Collectors who search for hankies are often pleased by the fact that these little treasures are both affordable and easy to store. You can pick up nice examples at antique shops, second hand stores or resell shops. Often they are displayed with household linens or vintage clothing and accessories.

Select these little gems by examining the condition and also look at the hand versus machine stitching, the quality of the cloth and the overall design of the work. Rolled hems are important too.

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 Titanic or British Royalty.

Just make sure your choices are in great shape, without stains, tears or wear.

Handkerchiefs can have designer names on them too, with some of the big ones being Billie Kompa, Tammis Keefe, Pat Prichard and Frederique, according to the handkerchief book by dealer-collector Roseanna Mihalic.

The most common fabric for handkerchiefs is cotton or linen but other examples can be found in silk and satin. Size varies too and can be quite small, perhaps 3 or 4 inches square or as large as a large size 18-inch square men’s version.

If you’re interested in exploring the hankie habit with enthusiasm, I’d advise getting a copy of a reference book like the one by Mihalic or this one called, “Printed & Lace Handkerchiefs: Interpreting a Popular 20th Century Collectible.”

It has loads of color photos and describes hankies by decade and shape. There are facts and figures to for pricing information. You can find both of the books I mention at

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.


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