More a fashion accessory than an item for cold-sufferers, the handkerchief pervaded every area of fashionable Victorian society, conveying more subtle signals than just surrender.
From 1800 to 1860, French, German and English fashion plates depicted women holding a handkerchief as an elegant accessory to morning, travelling or evening dress. Woven by power looms introduced in the late 18th century, these little squares of linen, cambric, silk or cotton were usually edged with lace or embroidery, and sometimes bore their owner's initials in one corner. The most gorgeous of all had deep patterned borders surrounding a tiny scrap of plain material, or were even completely worked with lace or embroidery.
This antique handkerchief is trimmed with hairpin and crocheted lace, and
was made in the late 1800's. There is drawnwork and faggoting around the
perimeter of the sheer cotton fabric. The fabric has a small hole, visible
in the last photo. There is also along that same side a repair in the
hairpin lace, which you can see in the photo, but isn't obvious unless
you're looking for it. The color is dark cream or ivory, and the hanky is
approx. 13-3/4" square. Considering the age and delicacy of the piece it's
in very good condition. It would make a lovely wedding hanky, or could be
displayed in a Victorian bedroom.
No one would have dreamt of sneezing into such an object, and its most practical function consisted of shielding the owner from unpleasant smells - it was sprinkled with a favourite scent and held lightly to the nose. This was but one of the many gestures that could be employed to convey an eloquent message, for the handkerchief rivalled the fan as a means of communication.
Improved machinery revolutionized the industry in the 1830s, but handmade lace retained its appeal throughout the 1850s and 1860s thanks to such leaders of European
fashion as Empress Eugenie of France. Against the swelling tide of progress, she refused to wear machine-made lace, and with like-minded friends helped to keep the skills of the traditional lace-maker alive when most weaving was done in factories.
Until 1831, the British cloth printing industry was heavily taxed. Afterwards, there was an explosion of interest in printed fabrics, and handkerchiefs were the perfect medium. A huge variety of printed handkerchiefs were produced up until the 1860s: very different from the diaphanous confections flaunted by society women, they were bought mainly by men as souvenirs or
Appropriately, handkerchiefs were widely used to commemorate events in Queen Victoria's reign, for it was she more than anyone else who popularized their use among British women. She owned handkerchiefs for all occasions. Mainly in whitework and decorated with her monogram, many of them have been preserved in museums while others frequently appear at salerooms.
Many Victorian handkerchiefs are a fine record of the lacemaker's art. The examples pictured above are, from left to right: chemical (or Swiss) lace, where the pattern is painted onto the fabric with wax and the unwanted material is burnt away with acid; lawn cotton (a handmade bobbin lace); Brussels tape lace; and Maltese silk.
HANKERCHIEF COLLECTOR'S NOTES
If you're thinking of starting to collect Victorian handkerchiefs, you may like to consider specializing in one of two categories:
ladies' or men's handkerchiefs. Each area has its own peculiar fascination, and both can be picked up at salerooms, markets or
second hand clothes shops.
Ladies' handkerchiefs were delicate affairs, and could exhibit all the skills of the top lacemakers or embroiderers. The most delicate ones were given to women as wedding presents. Kept in beautifully embroidered sachets, they were used only on special occasions such as attending balls or the opera. But though a German fashion magazine declared handkerchiefs 'indispensable' in 1858, these handmade items were not cheap.
Sometimes lace borders made abroad were attached to handkerchiefs made by silk or cotton manufacturers in England. Though many of their names have been forgotten, most silk handkerchief firms were based in Macclesfield. When finished, dainty women's handkerchiefs were sold in drapers' shops, haberdasheries and the new department stores such as Harrods and Whitely's.
The most expensive ones came from couturiers and were meant to match evening gowns. Cheaper cotton varieties made by well-known firms like Welsh and Margetson had a wider range of outlets and could be bought at dry goods stores or even from pedlars at fairs.
Produced in hours instead of weeks, factory-made lace became increasingly sophisticated, almost rivalling the quality of handmade lace. In the late 19th century a French engineer, Mahlere, designed a 'circular machine' that made almost faultless copies of traditional patterns, and there were similar developments in embroidery.
In common with women's handkerchiefs, those made for men echoed social and sexual stereotypes. They were
bold, brash efforts, trumpeting the achievements and events of the Victorian era. Printers would put the designs straight onto ready-made blank handkerchiefs, or onto lengths of cloth which were cut and hemmed later.
One of the most memorable designs was by Welsh and Margetson, who each year produced a special handkerchief that commemorated the Derby winner. Other interesting examples included cartoons inspired by historic events, such as
Lord John Russell's Reform Bill of the 1830s, or the opening of the Thames Tunnel in 1843.
Whether you decide to collect men's or ladies' handkerchiefs, they can each provide many hours of pleasure.