By Peg Brown
The Perfect Square
It was the victim of my first ironing lesson, a prop for early childhood birthday games, and an important fashion accessory for years—the handkerchief. As we endure the colds and flus of the long winter months, that box of Kleenex often emerges from the bathroom cabinet to assume a prominent place on every counter and desk. But it wasn’t always the preferred alternative to managing a runny nose.
As children, the white square of cotton (or, for special occasions—linen), was the way my grandmother introduced me to the joy of ironing. In truth, grandma ironed everything, including grandpa’s shaving rags—when straight razors, leather sharpening straps, and shaving cream in mugs were the daily tools of personal hygiene. And ironing was a process then—sprinkle the handkerchief with water from a soda bottle with a red cap repurposed as your source of steam, line up the corners, press, fold in half—line up the corners again—press—and move on to the dozen or so that still lurked in the laundry basket.
My grandfather and father stuffed handkerchiefs in their front pockets every day, and never considered whether or not it was good practice to blow a nose and return the wrinkled, and somewhat damp cloth, to that same front pocket for the rest of the day. Had they not used handkerchiefs, I have no idea what Santa would have brought them for Christmas. The box of white handkerchiefs was as much a part of gift giving to male relatives as was the obligatory holiday tie.
My grandmother elevated handkerchiefs to a fine art form. She spent thousands of hours with a very small steel crochet hook and fine variegated colored thread, trimming these squares with inches of intricate crochet and tatting. EVERY elementary school teacher I had received these as gifts at Christmas. Of course, these were never used by anyone, except perhaps to appear as an accessory in a dress or shirt pocket, or stuffed under the cuff of a long-sleeved blouse, lace tangling over the hand.
My suspicion that these were never used is confirmed every time I walk through an antique mall or consignment shop, and discover dozens of these beautiful creations—maybe 12 for a $1. I am going to admit to buying many of them in a futile effort to honor the labor that I know created these heirlooms—and of course, never use them, except in a pocket, stuffed up a sleeve, or turned into a fancy pillow, A favorite Florida vendor of mine turns these treasures into gift bags, book marks, and greeting cards giving me an outlet for all I’ve collected. I just turn around and buy what she makes.
We all know what happened to change the culture. Kleenex. However, Kleenex is not a recent product. The first tissue was actually introduced in 1924. The base product was designed during World War I to use in gas mask filters as a replacement for cotton. The original target market for Kleenex—Hollywood. Kleenex was designed to be used to remove theatrical makeup using cold cream, and was often endorsed by stars, including Helen Hayes and Jean Harlow, iconic movie stars of their time.
The cost of a box of Kleenex in 1924 for 100 sheets was 65 cents—which translates into approximately $9 today. It was truly a product meant for the wealthy, glamorous, theatrical crowd. However, when the company began to receive letters from customers indicating they used the product as a disposable handkerchief, the marketing message changed. By the 1930s, Kleenex was using the slogan, “the handkerchief you can throw away.”
Yet, the handkerchief as fashion accessory continued well into the 1960s. “Pocket squares” as they were called (which featured a rolled hem in contrast to the stitched hem of an ordinary handkerchief), were often sported by celebrities. Many of the dozens of ways in which you can fold a pocket square are named after movie stars of the 1940s, including The Cagney, The Astaire, and The Cooper. Supposedly, pocket squares had a renaissance in the 2000s thanks to television shows like Mad Men, but I can ‘t personally attest to this report.
World War II and the rationing of paper products temporarily limited the use of Kleenex, but because the company’s technology was useful in making bandages for the war effort, the related “patriotic” publicity kept the company in the spotlight.
In 2019, Kleenex was sold in 170 countries, generating approximately $1.7 billion in revenue. Used by an estimated 169.4 million Americans, Kleenex continues to bury the competition and other generic brands. If only grandfather had bought that stock!!!!
And, oh, the early reference to handkerchiefs and birthday party games. We often engaged in “A Tisket, A Tasket” rhyming game where we all sat in a circle on the grass or floor and one of our group would skip around the circle with a handkerchief in hand, while we recited the rhyme, culminating in “and on the way I lost it, I lost it….” The nearest child would pick up the handkerchief and chase the dropper. Supposedly, the “dropper” would receive a kiss or have to reveal the name of a sweetheart. We, of course, were too young—we saved that stuff for sixth grade and Spin the Bottle!
Some fun facts on the origins and importance of handkerchiefs:
There is supposedly one reference to a handkerchief in the Bible—a Greek word meaning “sweat cloth” was translated as “napkin” and is used a few times, including in the books of John and Luke. (Easton’s Bible Dictionary, 1897)
King Richard II of England is said to have invented the cloth handkerchief as he was observed using a square piece of cloth to wipe his nose.
In the 1700s, women waved white handkerchiefs to indicate approval of actions at public events.
And literature contains numerous references to handkerchiefs, including the famous presentation portrayed by Shakespeare’s Othello of his mother’s handkerchief to his wife—leading to much mayhem.
“Kleenex” is actually a takeoff on the word “clean” with the “ex” added to incorporate Kimberly-Clark’s other popular product of the time, Kotex.
Thoughts on the last article on cursive writing—If your children or grandchildren are sending you texts, do they often add an emoji? Or just use an emoji that leaves you guessing what is actually meant? It seems that millions of years ago we relied on cave drawings—have we come full circle and resorted to just using symbols as a way to communicate? Hmmmm.
And, completely unrelated to anything, is there any package, box, or container that now doesn’t require a pair of scissors, box cutter or machete to open? —or is my arthritis just getting worse?
Keep warm and get those tissues ready!