Do People Still Use Handkerchiefs? A Short History of Blowing our Noses

Have you ever paused mid-sneeze and pondered the history of the piece of cloth or paper you're about to use? Probably not, and who could blame you? 

But the humble handkerchief and its modern-day cousin, the facial tissue, have a past as rich and textured as the finest linen. With so many blog posts about toilet rolls, we thought it was time we took a minute to dive into the history of one of our other products, facial tissues!

How long have we had disposable tissues and when did they take over from their cloth cousins? Tissues at the ready? Let’s jump in. 

The Handkerchief: A Tale of Elegance and Etiquette

It’s likely that the habit of keeping a bit of cloth on you to wipe your face goes back as far as cloth itself, and we have archaeological evidence of small personal cloths dating back thousands of years. Among the archaeological finds of the Roman Empire, are the 'sudarium,' a cloth used to wipe sweat from the face and neck during hot Mediterranean days. 

It isn’t until we get to the European Middle Ages that we start to see evidence of handkerchiefs being used as all-purpose everyday accessories, particularly among members of the aristocracy. For these mediaeval carriers, handkerchiefs provided a way to show their access to rich cloth and their personal refinement, and so provided a sign of social status. It’s likely this combination of ideas of personal connection and refinement that gives rise to the classic trope of a fair maiden at a tournament passing on a glove or handkerchief to her favoured knight. 

Upper-class delight in handkerchiefs continues through the Renaissance, with the fabric used and embellishments becoming increasingly fancy and elaborate. Members of the courts of King Louis the XVI of France were known to carry richly embroidered handkerchiefs of the finest silks and laces. The variety of handkerchiefs seems to have been a bit much for the ill-fated King, who eventually issued a decree that handkerchiefs, which had previously been fashioned in all sorts of shapes and sizes, should be a standard 16 inch square. Queen Elizabeth I of England was known for her elaborate collection of handkerchiefs, some of which were adorned with precious gems.

It’s hard to imagine such richly-appointed accessories ever did much heavy-lifting in terms of nose-blowing, face-wiping, and tear-mopping. But people needed to blow their noses back then same as they do now, and one 16th Century Italian writer even offered the following advice for blowing your nose and keeping it classy:

...when you have blown your nose you should not open your handkerchief and look inside as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brain...

It's a good tip!

One final use that was well established right up to the Victorian era but is not seen much today was soaking a handkerchief with perfume to be held to the nose. This was considered an important way of preventing illness, due to the widespread belief that disease was caused by bad odours, and could provide some respite for city-dwellers as they walked through less-than-sanitary streets. 

The Facial Tissue: A Modern Marvel

While handkerchiefs reigned supreme for centuries, the 20th century brought a revolution in personal hygiene: the disposable facial tissue. The global Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 had made people increasingly concerned about hygiene, and particularly aware of the problem of used handkerchiefs. Although the public was encouraged to use handkerchiefs to catch coughs and sneezes, it was also widely known that those reusable pieces of cloth were a potential health hazard, holding on to germs for days and weeks. 

The solution came in the form of the disposable tissue

Facial tissues were first introduced by the Kimberly-Clark Corporation in the 1920s under the brand name "Kleenex." They were originally marketed as a way to remove makeup and cold cream. It wasn't until the 1930s that Kleenex began to be marketed as a disposable alternative to the handkerchief for sneezing and nose-blowing, thanks to a clever marketing campaign by the company, using the slogan “keep that cold to yourself.” The campaign by Kimberly-Clark to establish their tissues as the standard in personal hygiene was so successful that the word “Kleenex” is often used in the US as a catch-all for any disposable facial tissue.

With paper tissues on the up and up, the final nail in the coffin of the cloth handkerchief probably came with World War 2, when all fabric was in desperately short supply, and needed to be diverted for the war effort. Global fabric shortages led to changes in fashion, upholstery, and, most likely, the popularity of disposable tissues.

The Handkerchief and Facial Tissue Today

Today, both handkerchiefs and facial tissues hold their place in society, though their roles have shifted with the times. 

Handkerchiefs made today are likely to be decorated and colourful such as the pocket square - an added embellishment that has been included with many men’s suits since the 1920s. In Japan, beautifully patterned cotton handkerchiefs (known as 'hankachi') are a staple accessory. They're used not only for drying your hands but also for wrapping gifts, serving tea, or as a fashionable accessory.

Facial tissues are evolving as well, with manufacturers finding more and more ways to add supposed health benefits through extra softness, added perfumes and lotions, and even anti-viral coatings. These products can often be more expensive, but the evidence that they actually work to reduce the severity of air-borne illnesses or prevent their transmission is mixed at best. The best way to ensure you’re using tissues in a hygienic way is safely disposing of them after use, and washing your hands afterwards.

By now, facial tissues and handkerchiefs have been firmly split in two camps, with cloth handkerchiefs used for accessorising and decoration, and disposable tissues the firm favourite for everyday nose blowing! 

Interestingly, though, the two might be coming together again; With a growing awareness of sustainability and waste reduction, many people are returning to using handkerchiefs as an eco-friendly alternative to disposable tissues. But the hygiene implications of using reusable handkerchiefs during times of illness remain, so at Naked Sprout we are very proud to offer disposable facial tissues made from bamboo, without any bleach, manufactured without fossil fuels


From their early days in ancient civilizations to their modern incarnations, handkerchiefs and facial tissues have played a significant role in two of the most important parts of being human; looking after our bodies, and showing off our good taste! 

Whether you're a fan of the traditional cloth handkerchief or you prefer the convenience of a disposable tissue, there's no denying the impact these simple items have had on our history and daily lives. So, the next time you reach for that tissue or handkerchief, remember you're not just dealing with a piece of fabric or paper; you're holding a piece of history. Happy sneezing!

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