Handkerchiefs: Do they have a Future?

Donald NorfolkHandkerchiefs may be commonplace, yet how much do we know about their origins and everyday use? Would it be more hygienic, perhaps, if we threw away our cotton handkerchiefs and switched to using disposable paper tissues? Or should we accept the advice of those medics who claim that when we have a cold we ought to sniff rather than blow our noses? Before debating these controversial issues it might be as well if we took a brief look at the fascinating origins and development of the square of cloth be now recognise as a handkerchief. A ‘kerchief’ was originally the name given to a piece of decorative cloth worn as a covering for the head, a term which was derived from the early French word cuevrechief. Soon after, when similar cloths were worn around the neck they became known as ‘neckerchiefs’. Then, when fashion decreed that the wealthy should carry small squares of linen or silk lined with lace to mop their brows, they naturally became known as hand-kerchiefs. This vogue wasn’t adopted by the English aristocracy until the start of the sixteenth century, by which time it had been in common use among the European gentry for several centuries.

When Richard the Lionheart was captured and imprisoned by the king of Germany, he fell in love with the monarch’s beautiful daughter. The king wanted to put an end to the romance and so made plans to introduce a ravenous lion into Richard’s prison cell. The princess, hearing of her father’s plot, gave Richard forty of her silk handkerchiefs and told him to bind them round his hand so he could thrust it down the beast’s throat. Needless to say the story isn’t true, and was one of the many myths which arose long after Richard’s death, but it does show that handkerchiefs were in use in Europe as far back as the twelfth century. There are also records of handkerchiefs being employed in Ancient Rome. They must have been items of considerable value, for when the Venerable Bede died in 735 AD, he left instructions in his will that his handkerchiefs were to be bequeathed to his fellow monks.

The poor had no call for such refinements, although the more fastidious working class children were encouraged to carry a strip of cloth attached to their girdles so they could wipe the mud from their hands and the snot from their noses. These were called muckminders. This makeshift device wasn’t sufficient for the offspring of the well-to-do, who were encouraged to use a handkerchief in the traditional courtly fashion. This refinement was strongly emphasised in the Manual of Etiquette for Boys, a handbook written by Erasmus the great Dutch humanist. “A dripping nose is filthy,” he told his young readers. “To wipe it on cap or sleeve betokens a peasant, to rub it off on the arm or elbow is the mark of a vendor of smoke herring. It is not much better to wipe with the hand and then rub on the clothe. Better to use a handkerchief and turn the head away.” Despite the urgings of Erasmus, hankies didn’t come into widespread use until the eighteenth century, when men’s handkerchiefs also became much larger so they could smother the violent sneezes provoked by taking snuff. Paper handkerchiefs were originally known only to the Japanese, who called them hanagami. They were introduced to Europe by the Dutch, who for many years had the sole trading rights with Japan. But disposable tissues didn’t catch on in Britain until comparatively recent times.

Children nowadays can easily get advice on operating computers, but very few are taught the correct way to use a handkerchief. Youngsters of my generation were assured that it was good manners to use a handkerchief when they they coughed, sneezed or cleared their noses. But is this a matter of aesthetics or hygiene? Measurements show that the air stream velocity of a genteel English cough is 200 mph. For a full-bloodied American cough the comparable figure is said to be 760 mph. This outburst helps to rid the bronchial tubes of infective material, but can also contribute to the spread of respiratory disease. Even quiet talking distributes a spray of germs two or more feet from the mouth. With an unguarded sneeze the spread of droplet infection is sufficient to cover an entire room. This is often checked by covering the nose and mouth with the palm of the hand. This is not advocated nowadays, since viral infections are frequently spread by hand. That’s why many modern hygienists recommend that we should sneeze into the crook of our elbows.

One thing is certain, that we should never actively block a cough or sneeze, since this can lead to nose bleeding, ringing in the ears and sinus infection. The same applies to nose blowing, which should never be performed with both nostrils closed for fear of driving infected material backwards into the sinuses or middle ear. When the nose is blown the nostrils should be cleared gently and one at a time. There is even an argument for discrete sniffing in preference to nose blowing, since sniffing helps to clear the sinuses and middle ear and carry infected material into the stomach where it is quickly destroyed by the powerful gastric acids. One London doctor wrote an article in The Practitioner advocating that sniffing should be preferred to nose blowing during heavy colds. ‘Blowing’, he said, ‘is a cultivated act and not a natural one.’ Whether handkerchiefs are used or disposable paper tissues seems to be purely a matter of personal preference.

Key words: Handkerchief history, Coughs and Sneezes, Paper tissues

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