This woman knows hanky trivia
By Gail Jokerst
Today’s seniors may solve research problems by surfing the Web as nimbly as their grandchildren.
But when it comes to dealing with problems like runny noses and weepy eyes, the generations part ways. During those times of need, teenagers grab facial tissues while their grandparents typically reach for something alien to cyberspace-age kids — handkerchiefs.
Why the difference in orientation? According to Terese Blanding, Montana’s queen of hanky-panky trivia, the rift began during the roaring ‘20s and has widened ever since. Back then, men and women from all walks of life took a well-pressed handkerchief everywhere. Even children carried hankies in pockets or pinned to sleeves. But as the Charleston burst onto ballroom floors and flappers started wearing makeup, a new invention forever changed the destiny of handkerchiefs.
“Paper facial tissues were designed for removing rouge and mascara, not for runny noses, and so that women could stop ruining good linens with makeup,” explains Terese. “This helped make handkerchiefs passé. The convenience of facial tissues, for their intended and unintended purposes, practically made the handkerchief obsolete overnight.”
And how does Terese, who operates Viewforth Bed and Breakfast near Choteau and Augusta, happen to be such an expert on the subject? Well, it seems she’s been collecting handkerchiefs since her Missoula childhood and she now owns over 400 of these fancy-to-functional fabric rounds and squares.
“I grew up in a discerning atmosphere where handwork was highly valued,” she remembers. “Even as a child, I could tell the difference between the feel of an Irish linen handkerchief and a dime-store look-alike.”
Her appreciation for these “artful little squares of history,” as she calls them, waxed through the years along with her stash of handkerchiefs. Ranging from the subdued to the outrageous, the collection now includes highbrow silk and lace as well as everyday cotton and novelty fibers such as cactus and pineapple. The latter two, incidentally, don’t come highly recommended.
“Pineapple fiber is brittle and not very long-lasting,” says Terese. “And cactus has a slimy feel to it.”
Aside from an array of textiles, you’ll also find every color imaginable in her collection — including black-edged mourning handkerchiefs and frilly white wedding handkerchiefs. The design spectrum is equally impressive and surprising. While you expect to see the flowers and monograms, polka dots and plaids that she’s accumulated, you don’t anticipate seeing railroad logos, airline dinner menus or Beethoven’s face emblazoned across something you’d sneeze into.
Blanding’s curiosity about handkerchief history grew along with her burgeoning collection. It impelled her to read all she could on the topic. She became so enthusiastic about what she gleaned she found herself seeking a way to share her knowledge with others.
Her first opportunity arose in the spring of 2003 when she volunteered to talk about handkerchiefs at a Fairfield Public Library fund-raiser. The program was a hit and set Terese on the road with her collection and expertise. So far, she’s given a dozen presentations, which have supported fund-raisers and captivated audiences of all ages at libraries and museums in Montana and Oregon.
Among the many things you’ll learn during her program is how important this almost-extinct item has been to mankind.
“Handkerchiefs have been around since time immemorial. The ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all had handkerchiefs. They were symbols of aristocracy and nobility,” explains Blanding. “And just like today, they had hankies ‘for show and for blow.’ Then, as now, some hankies were never meant to be used. Just looked at and stuck back in a drawer.”
According to Blanding, handkerchiefs have made appearances throughout history in many guises other than the obvious ones. During the time of Marie Antoinette, who standardized these fashionable fabrics into their now-ubiquitous square shapes, hankies played an amorous role between the sexes. Men and women covertly flashed elegant silk and lace handkerchiefs to one other to convey coded messages and send romantic signals.
Handkerchiefs have also been exchanged as remembrancers and figured into matrimonial rituals for many societies.
“We’re a sentimental bunch and like to give other people something to remember us by. As tokens of affection or esteem,” Blanding states, “handkerchiefs have served that purpose for centuries.”
At weddings, the handkerchief has often taken center stage along with the bride and groom in various cultures. “Jeweled handkerchiefs made of silk preceded engagement rings,” she notes. “Hutterite women have long given beautiful hand-embroidered handkerchiefs to their betrothed. And in Jewish weddings, a handkerchief is wrapped around a ceremonial glass that the groom crushes underfoot.”
Whether employed as a secret code, emergency bandage, or tear wiper, handkerchiefs have played key roles in novels as well as real life. In fact, Blanding has discovered that handkerchiefs hold a venerable place in classic and current fiction and nonfiction.
“I looked for literary references expecting to find them and did I ever. I was amazed to see all the references that I came across for such a seemingly inconsequential item,” says Blanding. “And not just in old novels. Mentions in contemporary works kept recurring. I didn’t expect to find it in a memoir such as Judy Blount’s Breaking Clean, but I did. Montana writer Ivan Doig also mentions hankies in his autobiography, This House of Sky.”
In addition, she cites turn-of-the-century author Helen Hunt Jackson (Ramona), Truman Capote (A Christmas Memory), William Shakespeare (Othello), and Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) as a sampling of other famous writers who have included hankies in their stories. “And that’s just the short list,” she notes.
One of Blanding’s favorite literary references occurs toward the end of Gone With The Wind. Scarlett is weeping and Rhett tells her, “Take my handkerchief, Scarlett. Never at any crisis of your life, have I known you to have a handkerchief.”
Another favorite comes from Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs In Heaven. The passage reads: “Alice hands Annawake a handkerchief. Young people never carry them, she’s noticed. They haven’t yet learned that heartbreak can catch up to you on any given day.”
During Terese’s program, you’ll learn that aside from folding hankies to fit pockets and purses, yesteryear’s moms also folded children’s hankies to act as coin carriers. This was especially popular during the first half of the 20th century.
After Elaine Pentecost heard Blanding share this bit of trivia at High Plains Heritage Center in Great Falls last October, she says it triggered an almost-forgotten memory.
“My mother used to tie a nickel in the corner of my hanky for the weekly Sunday School collection,” recalls Pentecost, who describes Blanding’s program as enlightening. “I’d never given handkerchiefs a thought before this. I had no idea there was so much history associated with them.”
Pentecost found the topic so irresistible she’s vowed to carry on the hanky tradition with her three granddaughters.
“I doubt that any of them own a handkerchief, so I’m going to buy handkerchiefs for all of them this year,” she states resolutely. “What a wonderful history to pass along.”
For more information about Terese Blanding’s program, “Handkerchiefs: The Artful Little Squares of History,” call her at 406/467-3884. You can also write to her at Viewforth Bed and Breakfast, 4600 Highway 287, Fairfield, MT 59436 or e-mail at email@example.com.