Handkerchiefs And Facial Tissues: A Short History Of Blowing Your Nose

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for January 9, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Although my allergies call for a year-round supply of Kleenex (only brand we like), as a family, which includes by granddaughters who visit regularly, we tend to use more tissues during the winter months than in the summer. When one of us has a cold, or other respiratory problems, I think how blessed we are that someone invented the “facial tissue,” as it was originally called.

            It was invented by Kimberly Clark and first marketed as “Kleenex” in 1924, — now get this – for the purpose of removing cold cream from your face, not that I ever put cold cream on my face. But of course it came to be widely used for blowing the nose. In the 1940’s, however, many folks, including my parents and most others, were still using handkerchiefs, which could be very unsanitary. Back in those days, people who couldn’t afford handkerchiefs used “snot rags,” as they were called in the 1940’s, which were simply pieces of old rags you used for nose-blowing.

            No doubt we re-infected ourselves by using handkerchiefs, but we thought we were quite sanitary by not using snot rags. My mother and grandmother made our handkerchiefs by hemming pieces of soft cloth and embroidering designs on them. In those days, cloth handkerchiefs for us were strictly utilitarian, — we never used them as a fashion statement even though the embroidery was nice. You could buy simple, white handkerchiefs at the Five and Dime Store with your initial or some other design sewn on it, but my frugal Wendish German family never bought anything they were capable of making. Since they were not expensive in the Dime Store, handkerchiefs were often given by school children as Christmas presents.

            While facial tissues were invented in the 20th Century, it is believed that the cloth handkerchief was invented by King Richard II of England in the 14th Century, mainly for the purpose of wiping your nose. But its uses broadened out over the years.

            In the 16th and 17th Centuries, which included the Elizabethan Era in England, it was widely believed you could catch a cold or the flu by taking a bath, so body odor became a major problem in a room of unbathed people. Both ladies and gentlemen poured perfume on their dainty handkerchief, which they then kept inside the wrist ruffles of their shirt or blouse sleeve. Thus they would regularly dab their fancy hanky under their nose to get a whiff of the perfume, which helped to block out the body odor in a crowded ballroom.

            In the 18th Century, larger, patterned handkerchiefs were worn around the neck by men and women, strictly as a fashion statement. At various times in English history, handkerchiefs were used to sneeze into by those who dipped snuff, snuff-dipping having become fashionable among the British aristocracy. Generally speaking, Germans did not dip snuff, and they referred to the English as “dirty snuff-dippers.” “Snuff-dippers” was the derogatory term my mother used for British-Americans, and my brother and I each married one.

            Today, handkerchiefs are used mostly by men as an adornment for their suit coat. Some suits today come with pseudo-handkerchiefs sewn into the pocket near the lapel. Some women still carry handkerchiefs in their purse, but facial tissues have generally replaced them.

            We used to play a game in Dime Box Rural School in the 1940’s called “Drop the Handkerchief.” We children would stand in a circle, and one player would run around the outside of the circle, dropping a cloth handkerchief behind a person in the circle. That person would then chase the one who dropped the hanky, and so on. If you played that game with kids today, you’d probably have to explain to the kids what a “handkerchief” is. Might be better to just drop a box of Kleenex.

            It’s interesting that no one in recent times has come up with a new game using facial tissues, — like “Wipe the Cold Cream Off Your Face.” When I have a cold nowadays, I really appreciate being able to blow my nose with a soft, gentle tissue, — believe it or not, my mother used to starch my handkerchiefs!


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top