Tag Archives: Victorian handkerchiefs

Our Pet Handkerchiefs: 1889

1884 grape handkerchief

1884 handkerchief trimmed with point de gaze. http://www.mfa.org/collections/object/handkerchief-66177

OUR PET HANDKERCHIEFS.

Handled with Caressing Fingers, Sighed Over and Cherished.

Something About Their Styles, Textures and Exquisite Finish.

Do you pet a handkerchief? No? Then you are not a woman and this article is not for your perusal.

Some women pet hobbies, others pet dogs, a few pet babies, but all the gender pets handkerchiefs.

The woman doesn’t live with a streak of the aesthetic in her nature, who hasn’t a filmy rag or two folded away in her for-ever-and-ever box and hallowed by the memory of other times and other lives.

It is only necessary to pick up one of these sheer little napkins to experience a palpitation of the heart. It is sure to be pretty, a little yellow with age, and faintly suggestive of some delicate scent that brings back a schoolboy, a sweetheart or the hero of some Commencement ball, lawn party or kettledrum. Perhaps there is a stain of lemonade on it; maybe it’s teardrop, but whatever the blemish, it is as sacred as the pale colors that mellow an old prayer rug.

The scent of flowers will recall a woman’s face and voice to the man in a reverie and a cloud of cigar smoke, but nothing will resurrect the Jack or Tom or Billy of long ago quicker than the sight of his handkerchief. If he is dead there’s a gentle kiss to his memory, and if he is married a sigh and perhaps a scrutiny of the web as if to divine in its meshes the reason of it all.

You have to be a woman with a lot of sentiment in your soul to fully understand a girl’s love for a bit of lace and mull.

It’s a species of idolatry such as a virtuoso lavishes upon a choice piece of miniature painting. It is handled with caressing fingers, sighed over, dreamed over, rinsed in perfume, folded away in withered rose leaves, and to think even of laundering it would be a profanation.

With all her love and reverent worship of lace and fine linen, there isn’t a woman in a whole congregation who is a judge of either fabric. In buying she looks at the decoration. If it is pretty the article is purchased, and as a rule she would rather have an ornamental handkerchief for 75 cents than a sheer linen plain edge. Ironed with a silver gloss and finished with open embroidery or cheap lace, any clerk with a tongue can make the fair customer believe that she is getting all linen, which in reality is all but 1-10 of 1 per cent. Cotton.

Men, as a rule, do better in their purchases. They don’t pretend to be judges. When an article is submitted his highness shakes it in the air. If the fluff flies he doesn’t want it, and he runs through the stock playing flag with each article until one is found that beats the air clean.

The handkerchief markets of the world are in the north of Ireland, in France and in Switzerland. Perhaps nine-tenths of the trade is supplied by the Irish firms, Belfast being the real centre of supply. The fabrics are sent to the distributing agencies, by whom they are bunched with threads and patterns, to be again distributed among the skilled needlewomen, by whom they are hemstitched, decorated in black or drawn-work and white or colored embroidery. These unfortunate workers receive an incredibly small sum for their labor, but, poor as it is, they are glad to do it. Irish-made handkerchiefs vary in price from 25 cents to $3, and while warranted to be all linen the fabric may be a coarse quality.

It is difficult to say which are the finest goods of French or Swiss make. In either it would seem as though the acme of needlework had been reached, and the very perfection of linen weaving.

Textures of such exquisite finish as to suggest silk are by no means uncommon, but you will have to pay $3 for a specimen, and that, too, without a vestige of trimming or decoration. The hemstitch varies from one-sixteenth to an inch and a half, but it is a real luxury to feel the delicate web against your face. Handkerchiefs of this sort are carried by high-born ladies and by others not so high, but of equally exalted notions about the elegancies of life.

It is said that in her boots, gloves, and linen a woman’s taste mirrors itself, and there is much truth in the saying. Handkerchiefs with scalloped edges, dotted borders and needle-wrought hems are indeed beautiful, but the poetry of a handkerchief hangs about the frill of a lace, which may be one-third of an inch or a hand deep, but must be the real thread.

handkerchief trimmed with valenciennes lace

Embroidered handkerchief trimmed with Valenciennes lace, mid-19th c. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/-/HQHw3duV2A7pxQ?childAssetId=zQFwpV6cZuPLQw

Of all handkerchiefs the most genteel is a dollar square of linen lawn edge with narrow valenciennes. It was a handkerchief of this sort that the gentle Elizabeth Barrett had in her hand when the poet Browning felt his heart desert him. It is, too, this same style that you will be attracted by if you ride much in the Fifth avenue stages or touch elbows with the slowly moving matrons and haughty beauties of the Knickerbocker set. You can pay $25 for a piece of Swiss embroidery or $25 for a fancy in French with a vine of open-worked lilies round the edges, neither of which will begin to champ like the sheer linen with its suggestion of fine lace that $5 will procure.

The stage is no a poor field for the study of the beautiful hand loom. Mrs. [Lily] Langtry habituated herself to the use of linen lawn that was as delicate as the inner lining of a silk-worm’s house, that could not have cost less than $50 a dozen, exclusive of the lace that edged them. Pauline Hall has some superb specimens of lace woven about a centre of sheerest linen about the size of a checker square, and the charm of Mrs. [Cora Urquhart Brown-] Potter’s handkerchief was the faint odor of violets that seemed a part of the web and lace.

[Helena] Modjeska likes a filmy piece of French mull with the narrowest edge of lace. Miss [Mary] Eastlake has a fancy for Nottingham lace that she buys in the town by the dozen, and the last consignment to Mme. [Adelina] Patti consisted of satiny hand-woven linen with two deep hems, very simply stitched.

NELL NELSON.

The Evening World [New York NY] 27 December 1889: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: In some of our discussions of the cost of ladies’ wardrobes, we have frequently seen reports of very costly handkerchiefs.  However, Miss Nelson asserts that it is not the cost, but the memories and sentiments associated that make a handkerchief a “pet.” Mrs Daffodil purses her lips dubiously at how useful such a “pet” accessory might be: they cannot be trained to repeat clever bon mots; they do not chase off burglars; nor are they effective mousers despite their French appellation of “mouchoir.”  Scarcely worth their keep, one thinks.

Mrs Daffodil appreciates how some gentlemen show a more practical attitude towards the quality of their linen:

A Madrid journal [La Tela Cordata] is printed on linen with a composition easily removable by water, and the subscriber, after devouring the news, washes his journal and has a handkerchief.

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 3 September 1899: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

The Point-Lace Handkerchief: 1871

A reporter, who witnessed the re-opening of a great dry goods establishment in Chicago, which had been burned out on the 8th  of October—mentions that he saw a point-lace handkerchief sold to a lady for $59. This little commercial transaction has been much and severely commented on, and we are told that it is even a disgusting incident. We can’t see it, the exceeding sinfulness of the conduct of the lady who bought the handkerchief. All depends upon circumstances, whether she was right or wrong in investing so liberally in a “wiper.” If the money she gave for the handkerchief was honestly hers, she committed no sin whatever in exchanging it for point-lace, unless we are prepared to say that all expenditure save for the absolute necessaries of life is sinful. Is it more sinful to give $59 for a handkerchief than it is to give $10,000 for a horse? Yet there are men who spend thousands, yearly, on horses—and whose rings are many, and rich. Is it a greater offence to lay out money for lace than it is to lay it out in keeping a yacht? A veteran smoker, who consumes many cigars, and those of the best brands, expends every month more for tobacco than the Chicago lady expended once for a handkerchief—and her handkerchief may last for years, and even decades—perhaps for generations, and become the property of her granddaughter—whereas the man’s cigars must vanish in fumo, or they are worthless. In some old European families they have lace that was made and bought, and originally worn, hundreds of years ago. Lace, if it be really rich is an investment that endures, keeping its worth for ages, and growing more valuable as it gains in time. Cigars burn up, horses die, and yachts are lost, but lace lasts. Who knows but that the fair Chicagoan is a prudent, sensible woman, who was only making a sound investment of some of her floating capital? But, we are told, she should have given the $59 to relieve some suffers by the great fire. How do you know that she had not given liberally in aid of the sufferers in her city? It is going rather far to assume that she had given nothing for that purpose. If it be said that she should have given all she had to the sufferers, the obvious answer is, that she was no more bound to do so than were the men who gave something to relieve the persons who were burned out, but who did not give all their possessions. They have many articles in their possession quite as superfluous as her lace handkerchief, and yet they do not think of parting with those articles, because many persons want food or clothing, or both. Why should she not have her luxuries as well as they? It is not fair to censure her while extravagant men are allowed to pass uncensored.

Boston [MA] Traveller 16 December 1871: p. 2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Lace, although enduring enough to be heritable by another generation, is still more ephemeral than the poor and the suffering, who are always with us. It would have taken more than the cost of a point-lace handkerchief to restore the losses of victims of the Great Chicago Fire, although a gentleman’s outlay for his yacht might have aided a significant number of the displaced.

Mrs Daffodil considers that the lady in the example above was quite thrifty compared to  these titled and royal personages who paid sinful prices for their lace-edged handkerchiefs.

It took seven years to make a handkerchief for which the Empress of Russia paid $5,000.

New York American 20 October 1898: p. 8

and

The late Marquess of Angelsey owned three dozen handkerchiefs for evening dress wear. They were of the purest white linen, with his crest worked in human hair in the corners. They were made in Switzerland at a cost of $6 apiece. The late Duc d’Albe, Spanish grandee and uncle to ex-Empress Eugenie, was in the habit of ordering twelve dozen handkerchiefs at a time, for which he paid $120 a dozen. But the most expensive handkerchief is in the possession of the Queen Mother of Italy. It took three women five years to make it, and it is valued at $30,000.

Cleveland [OH] Leader 27 November 1913: p. 8

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.