The Sunday Magazine

A paean to the old-fashioned pocket hanky

For hygiene, for elegance, for so much more. John J. Boyd explains why it’s essential to always have a good-sized cloth handkerchief at the ready.

John J. Boyd explains why it’s essential to always have a good-sized cloth handkerchief at the ready.

John J. Boyd on why he always carries a pocket handkerchief.

By John J. Boyd

As far back as I can remember, I have always had a handkerchief, or hankie, in my trouser pocket, an inert but comforting presence.

My mother always kept a pile of carefully ironed handkerchiefs in a corner of a drawer. And in my 1940's Glasgow boyhood, our mothers did everything. Laundry was done by hand then; the almost daily shopping, on foot. No plastic or fancy paper packaging. In fact, there were very few paper items in the house, apart from the bathroom essentials, and the wall-paper decorating every room. Certainly no boxes or packets of tissue. Thankfully, the responsibilities and lives of women in the household have changed enormously. My love of handkerchiefs never has. I would feel naked without one.

Even a former president needs a handkerchief every now and then. (Larry Downing/REUTERS)

Nowadays, when I produce my useful nasal duster, I get ''oohs" of disgust from my Canadian family and friends. I gently respond, asking them to show me what they use. If they have anything at all, it's often a small crumpled ball of tissue which has been used a few times. These little paper items are quite useless if a nose blow is needed after a sneeze. This lack sometimes leads to the dreaded hawking, a truly stomach-churning noise. Or worse, sneezing is concealed in the corner of the elbow; surely the origin of the old tune, Greensleeves.

Allow me to share with you the many values of the handkerchief.

The most important, of course, is hygiene, in dealing with coughs, colds, sneezes and drips. During the acute moist and most infectious stage of a cold, I always carry several handkerchiefs. And let's just say, they get the job done extremely well.

Embarrassment can be avoided at concerts. An unexpected cough or sneeze can be muffled. Conductors hate these barky interruptions, which only happen during quiet passages in the music.

The cleaning of eye-glasses. This, of course, only if the handkerchief has an unused area, so smearing is avoided.  

No trees are sacrificed in the making of handkerchiefs, which are either linen, cotton or silk. They can be continually reused by washing in the weekly laundry, then nicely ironed into quarters. Cuts and scrapes on limbs and digits can be bound temporarily with our touted item. No harm should arise, even if the handkerchief has been used.

Handkerchiefs are wonderful for waving; either for attention or for help; let us hope never for the wish to surrender; unless in accepting defeat to peacefully end an acrimonious home discussion about the merits and demerits of handkerchiefs or paper tissues.

A nice suit or evening wear can be enhanced with a handkerchief in the top or breast pocket. This is usually formal white and should not have the appearance of an unposted letter. It must have carefully fluted peaks. Coloured silk or patterned handkerchiefs also add pizzazz to a semi-formal suit, sport coat or blazer.

Tiny grandchildren can have their noses wiped or tears dried or "owies" tended to by a handkerchief.

Imagine, if you will, the larger-than-life Pavarotti mopping his glistening brow with a paper tissue! Enough said there.

Monty Python fans will remember the use of a handkerchief with a knot at each corner as headgear to prevent sun damage to scalps with thinning hair. The ideal accompaniment to rolled-up trouser legs, when an adventure in sea-wading is risked.

Finally, I would like to mention a use which may help your favourite friends to quit smoking; no easy task. First, ask them to light a cigarette, take a puff and do not inhale. Blow the smoke through a white handkerchief. There will be a large dark-brown stain. Take another puff, but this time inhale, and again blow through the handkerchief next to the first stain. This one will be a very light brown. The missing residue is in the body, staining, poisoning and shortening life itself.

And there I rest my case; my crusade for the proper and proud possession and use of a good-sized cloth handkerchief for hygiene, elegance and so many other things. I do believe that our dear Queen Elizabeth would agree with me. I feel sure she keeps a beautifully embroidered and crested handkerchief in her ever-present handbag. A wise woman.