I’m fanatical about handkerchiefs. I carry one with me at all times and have dozens of them in my bedside drawer nuzzling my socks. I like to talk about them the way some guys talk about cars, and I think everyone should use them. Yet I’m painfully aware of the slight backing away of anyone I engage on the subject, especially if I produce one from my pocket (even if it’s a fresh, clean one), and I don’t know anyone else who uses them. Even my wife, who suffers my hankie homages and acknowledges their value, keeps buying Kleenex and relegates the handkerchiefs I give her to her bedside table, unused and lonely. But despite popular disdain (we’ll get to the “ick” factor later), handkerchiefs are hip; they’re helpful and honourable. Handkerchiefs are heaven. In his article “Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture,” the Australian environmental thinker Samuel Alexander cites four reasons—personal, social, environmental, and spiritual—for trying to make our lives simpler. I want to argue that using a handkerchief is a small, simple practice that can have powerful positive repercussions.
From a personal perspective, handkerchiefs have many advantages. First of all, they’re useful. A small square of white cotton will allow you to be prepared for so many situations, even if the opportunity to rob a stagecoach (see graphic) should present itself only once or twice in your life. As Scott Raab writes in Esquire, we’re talking about a “square of cloth that will serve the brave sojourner in various exigencies as snot rag, sweat mop, bar towel, bandana, and tourniquet, all while declaring his virile readiness to meet the world on the world’s terms, come what may” (Raab). I especially find them handy in the restroom when the paper towel dispenser turns out to be empty and at weddings where an extra one will be gratefully received by the woman weeping next to me. Of course, their primary role is Raab’s first function, and as a cloth to blow your nose into, it surpasses the flimsy disposable tissue in size, absorbency, and, most important, softness. Why would I want to wipe my nose with a tree when the handkerchief is so much more tender to the skin? Of the soft cotton hankie her mother gave her when she was giving birth, The Guardian columnist Annalisa Barbieri writes, “I was covered in a hideous rash and everything hurt my skin except for this wonderful, salve-like cloth that she tucked around my neck . . . . It’s a symbol of the tiniest detail that only a mother would notice, the endless thought a mother devotes to protecting and comforting.” Of course the most common dismissal of the handkerchief is that it is unhygienic, that we blow our nose and put it back in our pocket. All I can say is that I have seen too many ratty, balled up tissues divulged from sleeves, coat pockets or purses to believe the hankie, washed daily, loses the hygiene contest, and the latter is certainly better than nothing at all (or children’s sleeves). If anything, I get fewer colds than the average person. A final, small personal reason is cost. I buy the things ($4.99 for six white 100% cotton at Target) rarely, as they serve dutifully for years.
These are the personal reasons for using handkerchiefs, but aside from being able to blot tears, staunch wounds, and allow the owner to help others in a myriad of ways, the handkerchief has historically had more serious social roles as well. From the first century BC, when the rare, luxurious linen handkerchief was an outward sign of wealth, to the medieval knight who fixed it to the back of his helmet for luck, to Louis XVI’s decree—to please the aesthetic sense of Marie Antoinette—that handkerchiefs must be square (“HandkerchiefHistory”), the substance and potential beauty of the handkerchief have given it as much social meaning as any piece of clothing. Would Othello be as upset with Desdemona if she had lost the Kleenex he had given her? Indeed, I have forgotten where the socks in my drawer have come from, but many of the handkerchiefs next to them have memories attached: the bandana-type one I “inherited” from a former girlfriend; the Christmas present monogrammed ones my wife brought back from a trip to New York; the blue, polka-dotted ones I haggled over with a vendor in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Some people send handkerchiefs tucked in condolence cards after a death, and at least one entrepreneur has recognized their social (and economic) potential by offering to do this for you (for $19.95 plus shipping and handling) because “giving handkerchiefs to friends is a lovely way to demonstrate care especially at times when there simply are no words to say” (“Why Handkerchiefs?”).
Finally, and most importantly I think, are the environmental reasons for using handkerchiefs. The production, transportation and disposal of the 255,360,000,000 facial tissues Americans use each year (“Paper Facial Tissue”) have significant environmental impact. Many companies, including Kimberley Clark (which produces Kleenex) do not use recycled material to manufacture these tissues; rather, they use 100% virgin fibre (“A Shopper’s Guide”). The production of this facial tissue uses millions of litres of water and large amounts of electricity. Their transportation produces pollution and contributes to increased greenhouse gases. And these products are often used for only a few seconds and then discarded, contributing to mounds of garbage in landfill. According to Greenpeace, “If each household in Canada replaced one box of virgin fibre facial tissue with a box of tissue made from 100% recycled fibre, we could save: 11,654 trees; 853 cubic metres . . . of landfill space equal to 48 garbage trucks; [and] 15.9 million litres . . . of water, or a year’s supply for 32 families of four” (“The Issues”). Handkerchiefs do need to be produced, transported, and washed, but Rebecca Blackburn, writing for G Magazine reports that hankie use requires four times less water (to produce and wash) and three times less energy, and results in 26 times less waste than the use of disposable tissues (Blackburn). Handkerchiefs are especially easy on the landfill since, once they’re no longer fit for the nose, they’re useful as rags to clean windows. And then they end up in the workshop . . . and so on.
These personal, social, and environmental reasons for using handkerchiefs lead, for me, into Alexander’s fourth factor in adopting a practice of simplicity: spirituality. It may seem a stretch, but just as 1950’s men spiced the uniformity of their grey flannel suits with idiosyncratically coloured handkerchiefs (Gustafson), my own use of them contributes to a sense of moving outside the mainstream, of defining myself against the herd-like mentality that underpins our modern disposable materialism. As Alexander writes, “if we take time to isolate ourselves from consumer culture for long enough to unlearn it, for long enough to rouse ourselves from the daze of unexamined habit and reopen the doors of perception, we just might provoke a surprisingly fresh interpretation of the form of life behind.” This glimpse into the life behind, a small spiritual experience, happens each time I take out my handkerchief.
Alexander, Samuel. “Voluntary Simplicity: The Poetic Alternative to Consumer Culture.” The Simplicity Collective. N.d. Web. 17 March 2014.
Barbieri, Annalisa, “Comfort and Protection.” New Statesman 12 February 2007: 52-52.
Blackburn, Rebecca. “Tissues vs Handkerchiefs.” G Magazine. 14 May 2009. Web. 18 March 2014.
Gustafson, Helen. Hanky Panky: An Intimate History of the Handkerchief. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 2002. Xviii
“HandkerchiefHistory.” Handkerchief Heroes. N.d. Web. 18 March 2014.
“The Issues.” Kleercut.net. N.d. Web. 19 March 2014.
“Paper Facial Tissue – History and Environmental Impact.” Green Groundswell. 5 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 March 2014.
Raab, Scott. “The Endorsement.” Esquire, 1 Oct. 2005. Web. 20 March 2014.
“A Shopper’s Guide to Home Tissue Products.” National Resources Defense Council. 8 May 2009. Web. 20 March 2014.
“Why Handkerchiefs?” Love Deeply Weep Freely Handkerchiefs. 2014. Web. 18 March 2014.