It would seem from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) that the old word kerchief or kercher original meant a piece of cloth used to cover something, as in the form couverchief or covercher, then a qualifying word was added to indicate what was covered, neckerchief, headkerchief, etc. The handkerchief first appears in the Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV in 1480 as handcouverchieffes, where Elizabeth of York has 48 of holland cloth, and later pays for the washing of five dozen handcouverchieffes. By 1530 John Palsgrave in his work on French grammar, L'esclarcissement de la langue francoyse, equates handkerchief to the French mouchoir. The use of a handkerchief to blow the nose is certainly around by 1587 when someone is instructed to, “put this hande-kircher at thy girdle, to make cleane thy nose.”
Henry VIII and Elizabeth both owed handkerchiefs of various kinds. For use in his bath house Henry had twelve handkerchiefs of plain cambric and four handkerchiefs, one edged with white silk and the other three fringed with Venice gold and red and white silk. (1 p. 107)
Handkerchiefs were appearing in the wills and inventories of the middling sort by the 1560s. In Essex in 1562 Joan Wyseman left “4 handkerchers of holland” and the previous year a more upmarket handkerchief was left by Thomas Haynes; “a handkerchief of my new ones edged with black silk and silver to his [cousin Hastelare’s] wife” (2 p. 128) Haynes handkerchief may have been similar to a c.1600 handkerchief in the Burrell Collection, shown in image 1, which is of plain woven linen embroidered in black silk and silver-gilt threads around the edge.
1. Linen handkerchief with embroidered blackwork border, English, 1600–25. Burrell Collection. CC-BY-NC
By the last decade of the sixteenth century handkerchiefs were appearing in the inventories of yeomen and even husbandmen. The yeoman Henry Hale in 1595 left in his will both his best and his “next best handcerchiffe.” (3 p. 138) In 1610 the Ipswich merchant Philip Helwys had “20 course handkerchers” in his stock valued at only 2d each. (4 p. 76) By the middle of the seventeenth century handkerchiefs were common enough for the overseers of the poor at Beccles to include a handkerchief among the clothes provided to a young girl in 1644, and in 1688 another poor girl, this time in Kent, was provided with three handkerchiefs. (5 p. 52 & 61)
2. Linen handkerchief with silk embroidery and bobbin lace. Metropolitan museum, New York. Public Domain
The handkerchiefs that survive are not those that were the majority, the plain white squares of linen, but those that have embroidered decoration as in the Burrell example, or lace, or a combination of the two, as in image 2 an survival in the Metropolitan Museum New York, which has both whitework embroidery, bobbin lace and the owners initials. Among the nobility these heavily ornate items were not a practical accessory, but a fashionable item, and you might display it prominently in a portrait, as in image 3 which is a c.1615 painting by William Larkin in the collection of the National Trust.
3. William Larkin. Probably Lady Anne Sackville. c.1615. National Trust.
Lace was a common addition and can be found in handkerchiefs further down the social scale. They were often specified in wills, in 1617 in Stratford upon Avon, Anne Lloyd left two white laced handkerchiefs in her will. (6 pp. 297-8) In 1621 in Banbury Mary Showell left “my laced handkerchiffe.” (7 p. 14) They were owned by men as well, in 1629 Richard Saunders, a plumber of Bristol, owned “laced hand kerchers and two plaine hand kerchers” (8 p. 70) Sometimes a handkerchief could be more lace than cloth, as in the V&A example in image 4, which dates from 1600-20.
4. Handkerchief of linen with a broad border of lace. Victoria & Albert Museum.
When Gregory King produced his Annual consumption of apparel in 1688, he believed that 4 million pocket handkerchiefs were being consumed each year, with a total value of £200,000, that works out to one shilling per handkerchief. He refers to them as pocket handkerchiefs, as he lists neckerchiefs as neck handkerchiefs. (9) Obviously values change, early in the century those handkerchiefs that appear to be plain, are listed in inventories as valued at four, five or six pence each, by 1679 the Lincoln haberdasher Henry Mitchell has pocket handkerchiefs in stock at 1s 4d each. (10 p. 59) As well as linen, there are also silk handkerchiefs. In 1695 the chapman George Poull has half silk handkerchiefs in stock at 7½d each, and larger ones at 10d each. (11 pp. 154-5) By the end of the Stuart period commemorative handkerchiefs of printed silk, were being sold. The Victoria & Albert Museum, has one featuring the 1704 Battle of Blenheim, and The Museum of London has one with an abstract of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. In 1712 the chapman Walter Martin has in stock “1 dozen of printed handkerchiefs 10s.” (11 pp. 156-7)
Someone elsewhere asked about sizes, so a quick analysis of about 20 17th century survivals gives a range of 35.5cm to 49.5cm (14 inches to 19½ inches). They are basically square, where they aren't the difference is a few millimeters, probably caused by variations in hemming.
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