Hearts and hankies: A Valentine’s Day combo that’s sure to please

by Leigh Westphal, Museum Coordinator

Handkerchief from the Museum's collection

OK, folks, would you like a little gift giving advice for the upcoming holiday? Here’s one hint: chocolate and flowers may be yummy and beautiful, but they probably won’t succeed in making your loved one feel unique or special. Why not hearken back to a time of sheer romance and courtship? Yes, I’m talking about the Victorian Era, and, no, I’m not talking about the corset (I think we are all happy to leave that one in the past)!

The Victorian Era was a period in this country’s history with very strict codes of conduct. Therefore, a ritual took place with every activity and love was no exception. Handkerchiefs happened to have played a very vital role in these rituals of love.

Similar to the fan, handkerchiefs became popular fashion accessories for women during the mid-late nineteenth century and, as such, became tools for women to communicate with men. For example, drawing a handkerchief across one’s cheek signaled “I love you,” while twirling it in one’s right hand meant “I love another.”

Handkerchiefs were also given to women to signify a man’s love for her. This was especially common among sailors who often brought back embroidered silk squares from their travels abroad for the one they adored.

Children, too, were aware of the power of the handkerchief. Similar to the modern-day version of “Spin the Bottle,” Victorian children liked to play a game called “Drop the Hanky.” In this cat and mouse-like game, a girl walked behind a circle of friends and dropped her handkerchief behind a boy. The boy then picked up the hanky and tried to catch her before she made it back to his spot. Of course, if he was able to do so, then the girl owed him a kiss. Quite risqué for a time when children were to be seen and not heard, don’t you think?

So, why not break the mold yourselves this year and find the perfect neck scarf to match your lady love’s eyes, or a sharp handkerchief to accent your handsome beau’s favorite suit? And now you can also impress that special someone in your life with your knowledge of the handkerchief and why you thought it would make the perfect gift for your one and only. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Another handkerchief from the Museum's collection

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