I never met Mrs. Burton. Her small brown-paper package arrived in my mailbox a few weeks before our wedding. I cautiously opened the package to find a beautiful lace-edged handkerchief and a note.
"I saw your engagement announcement in the newspaper. Enclosed is a handkerchief for you to use on your wedding day. Weddings are a time for happy tears and sad tears. Now you'll be prepared," the note said.
I examined the delicate white linen square -- six lace borders, each featuring a different design and hundreds of tiny hand-sown stitches. Three small white flowers were embroidered near one corner.
I called Mom. "Do you know this woman?" I asked.
Mom laughed. Yes, she was familiar with Mrs. Burton, but she'd never met her. "She's been volunteering and doing things for others for years," she said. "She fed soldiers at the train station during World War I and during World War II ran the Red Cross canteen at the airport. She's volunteered at the Veterans Hospital, and through the years she's knit hundreds of pairs of socks for the U.S. soldiers serving overseas. You've just received a piece of her handiwork. I'm sure it's beautiful!"
I was twenty-something, a recent college grad, and at the time disliked most things old and traditional. But something about that beautiful piece of hand work and an older woman's gesture of kindness to a stranger touched me. At that moment I decided I would indeed carry Mrs. Burton's handkerchief with my wedding bouquet.
I recently found the handkerchief wrapped in tissue paper at the bottom of a dresser drawer. I'd forgotten about it. That got me thinking about handkerchiefs. In this throw-away age of disposable everything, cloth handkerchiefs are a bit of a novelty. Think about it. When did you last see people dabbing at their noses or wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs? It just doesn't happen! But that wasn't always true.
For generations, handkerchiefs were an important part of the daily attire of both women and men. When I was a child, most folks I knew had two stacks of cloth handkerchiefs stored in a dresser drawer. For men, white linen squares with hand-rolled edges and monograms were used when a dress shirt was worn. Paid or patterned cotton handkerchiefs were carried for informal occasions.
The women I knew carried lace-edged or finely embroidered handkerchiefs for dressy occasions and small cotton squares with whimsical patterns or designs for everyday. Each day they tucked a fresh hanky in the cuffs of their dress sleeves or under their belts. Older women like my grandmas tucked them beneath the shoulder straps of their undergarments.
When I was young, I often received handkerchiefs along with birthday cards. These small cotton examples were colorfully printed with nursery-rhyme characters and letters of the alphabet. And in the days before every school classroom had multiple boxes of Kleenex, sometimes it was nice to find a hanky stuffed in a pocket.
Dad always carried several handkerchiefs, and he found countless ways to use them that didn't include wiping his nose. He said they were great for cleaning windshields, getting dirty spots off cars, or shining boat chrome. He used them to unscrew jar lids, to hold special coins, and to keep his hands clean when he changed typewriter ribbons. Needless to say, he went through lots of handkerchiefs every year! Some were simply beyond laundering.
When I fell through a glass door and cut my wrist, Dad was instantly beside me with several handkerchiefs, using them to slow the bleeding until he could get me to the emergency room. I even saw him pull a large handkerchief around his head once on a cold day when he forgot a hat.
People have been using handkerchiefs made of flax, silk, cotton and linen, and in a variety of shapes, for centuries. They became fashionable in Europe in the 19th century and were soon popular in America. They were functional and fashionable, but also very labor-intensive.
Soiled handkerchiefs often had to be soaked or boiled to disinfect them and to remove stains. In the days before wash-and-wear fabrics, they also needed to be starched and ironed. I was one of probably countless kids who learned to use an iron while tackling a stack of extremely wrinkled hankies.
Handkerchiefs, like rotary telephones and televisions with rabbit-ear antennas, are becoming a relic of the past. Reasonably priced vintage handkerchiefs can still be found at tag sales and resale shops.
Today, I love all things old and traditional, including cloth handkerchiefs. What a pleasant surprise to rediscover Mrs. Burton's wedding handkerchief. But I'm also glad for the convenience of tissues. Who wants to bother with soaking and washing a stack of soiled cloth squares when tissues are so readily available? Not me!