Remember the days when hankies were more than just a piece of cloth?

Apr 08, 2023
Source: Getty

How life has changed in the 21st century. As I wipe a grandchild’s nose with a paper tissue and throw it in the bin, I’m reminded of those cotton squares we carried around in our pockets. Handkerchiefs, or hankies as we used to call them.

Bigger ones for men’s noses, were usually very masculine with a stripe or tartan pattern to make them a bit fancy. And women’s ones were smaller, and usually floral or lace-edged or sometimes even monogrammed. And the children’s ones were usually simpler as we would lose them – covered with nursery rhymes or pictures of kittens and puppies. 

And mum, standing at the ironing board with a basket of washing from off the line. The symmetry of the tea towels and table clothes and pillowcases. Squares and rectangles are so much easier to manage. And the nasty ones with sleeves and button holes are best left to the professionals. And finally the hankies.  Two swipes of the hissing iron, then folded with a final hot swipe to finish them off. Then placed in piles for each household member. Mum had a good memory.

I can still remember the smell of the hot iron on the freshly washed cotton.

A dirty hanky was a reproach. Winter colds were poorly managed by a tiny hanky, so Dad’s big ones would be borrowed. Mum would soak them in a bucket of disinfectant to get rid of the offending detritus and then wash them in boiling hot water and hang them on the line. A steaming hot iron would knock the hell out of any offending germ still left on them. A drop of eucalyptus oil was placed on the corner of our hankies in the winter. Mum would put a drop of Yardley’s April Violets on hers. 

A hanky went in your pocket everywhere. You did not share your hanky. But in grown-up stories kind and thoughtful men would produce a snowy white cotton handkerchief for weeping women. If he was single, I wondered who ironed them for him, probably the same female who ironed his shirt. Women waved hankies when saying goodbye. Try that with a tissue.

Hankies were good for scraped knees, chocolate-covered fingers, and carrying your marbles or treasures. A smoothly ironed hanky would remind me of home and give me a sense of belonging.

And now we have tissues. And they are handy. Purse packs in the car or handbag are so useful. Covid bought out even more creative ways of coughing into your elbow and school kids was taught to place a used tissue straight into the bin and then wash their hands. The tissues are great. Like most conveniences, they are essential to our lifestyle.

However, they do use precious natural resources and contain microfibres that can end up in our oceans. But try and buy a cotton handkerchief today, or even use one in public and you’d probably be regarded as a fossil. However, the few that I have to remind me of the olden days still bring back memories of simpler times. 

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