Someone raised the question the other day as to why pocket-handkerchiefs are always square. Pocket handkerchiefs are not always square – at least they have been square only since Louis XVI decreed that all handkerchiefs should be of a length equal to their breadth. There is a portrait in the Louvre of the time of Henry IV in which a Parisienne is holding a hexagonal pocket-handkerchief. It was the manufacturers who induced the King to decree the squareness of the pocket-handkerchief, which has more or less obtained ever since.
Even the present elaboration of design and colouring has not sought really to change the shape of what has now become a democratic element in life. For the handkerchief has not always been at the beck and call of everyone. It has had an aristocratic career, and it has even had political significance. Originally it was the mark of the Oriental prince, who wore it at his girdle, and that fine breadth of power which enabled Cyrus the Persian to forbid his subjects to attend to their noses in public would certainly have crushed the minion who dared aspire to the prerogative of his master.
Thus at the very beginning the handkerchief became a distinguishing mark of good society, and smart young Greeks had to decide whether to wipe their brow with their handkerchief or merely with their draperies. As they carried two – one in the hand and one at the girdle, – it was probably the former which ministered to the Classic brow. The Romans, who were inclined to overdo things Greek, carried, not two, but, several handkerchiefs, for each of which they had a different name, thus adding to the difficulties of Latin primers from a very early date.
A wicked extravagance
The handkerchief then bounds across the dark ages to sixteenth-century Italy, brought there perhaps earlier by the indefatigable Marco Polo, and becoming fashionable suddenly and arbitrarily with such zest as to make it the object of sumptuary laws. The “fazzoletto” was an important item in the Italian bridal chest, and the bride was known by the richness and extravagance of her handkerchiefs. Thence it spread to France, and last of all to England, where it was regarded as a wicked extravagance by the older generation. There was even an Irish question in pocket handkerchiefs.
Queen Elizabeth’s Court brought down upon itself the denunciation of the Chieftainess of Connaught, not because the latter had been rebelling a little, but solely because of a pocket handkerchief misunderstanding. The wardrobe of the Chieftainess did not, apparently, include a handkerchief and at a given moment one was handed to her by a lady-in-waiting. When she had used it the Chieftainess promptly threw it on the fire. This was a shock to the Court who had not had handkerchiefs very long, but they gave her another, instructing her through an interpreter to put it in her pocket. This evoked an outburst of Irish eloquence, in which English women were denounced as barbarians who were willing to put in their pockets that which had touched their nostrils, whereupon the Chieftainess threw the second handkerchief on the fire.
Even in these democratic days, the handkerchief seems now and again to carry with it social distinctions. Kipps felt bound to apologise for the absence of a handkerchief at a given moment, “me not having a cold,” while the devices of the monogram or the lace or the cobweb texture of a handkerchief reflect its owner fairly accurately. In any case its utilitarian purpose is only part of its function. When Titania wanted to cry Oberon gave her a cobweb, which is why there have been dewdrops on cobwebs ever since, and when a suitor wanted to describe the smallness of the hands of the Princess of China he said that a handkerchief would pass through her ring. Thus its casual connection with the nose is fairly snowed under with the historic, romantic, and sentimental interest attaching to it.
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