1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

There’s an old Irish proverb that says, “always carry two handkerchiefs… one to show and one to blow.”  In our modern times, we’ve blown past such simple habits and traditions.

Handkerchiefs remind me of my New Orleans grandmother who had always felt that a lady should never leave home without a cloth handkerchief in her purse (or even wearing gloves for special occasions)!  Today, no one ever leaves home without their cell phones even when attending special occasions!

For the younger generation, who have no idea what a handkerchief is, it is a piece of cloth (not a paper tissue) which is usually square in shape, either very plain or highly decorated with embroidery( for women’s use).  In the “olden days” men always wore a clean white ironed handkerchief in their suit pocket as that was considered being well-dressed. There was also a very specific folding technique to correctly display the handkerchief in the suit pocket  which was meticulously and artfully followed.

Women often had several handkerchiefs in their purses for blowing their noses, for gently patting their moist brows from overexertion, and for fanning themselves when they felt the “vapors” coming on.  For the more dramatically inclined female, it was also used to wave farewell to a lover going off to war and to wave goodby to loved ones from a cruise ship. It was also sometimes used as a symbol of surrender during war time.

As you would expect, Miss Manners, the notable etiquette expert on all things proper,  does give instructions to the younger generation on the proper use of a hanky:

Miss Manners suspects that the problem might be that the handkerchief is a forgotten artifact, and no one knows how to operate it. So here are the instructions.

There must be a fresh handkerchief every day. It must be kept within easy reach, in an outside pocket or tucked into the cuff or decolletage. The freshly pressed and folded handkerchief is shaken out, time permitting, and the sneeze goes directly into it.

It is then not refolded to look pristine, but returned crumpled to its nesting place. Repeat as necessary.

Miss Manners is confident that people who manage to carry, operate and whip out their electronic devices, will, with practice, be able to master this.

Via Dispatch.com

When we traveled through India a few years back (See our Indian travels), we were greeted with  the ubiquitous  handkerchief.  They probably didn’t even know what Kleenex tissue was.  As a result, I got a “hankering” (sorry about that) for the old time hanky.  It only makes sense to have the handkerchief make a comeback in today’s world. To us, they are more eco friendly and better for the environment.

I consulted an old book I have about handkerchiefs.  It recommended that soaking soiled handkerchiefs in salt water (using ordinary table salt) was sufficient to kill the bacteria and viruses that are on the cloth.  Afterwards, they are easily washed in your nearly full washer  (needing so little space themselves) and washed in cold water.  No need for bleach!

Whilst I am reminiscing, I remember my Belgian grandmother always using cloth napkins at every meal.  I don’t think I ever saw a paper napkin in her home. And  I thought she was just being elegant and classy.  But I found out it was a habit carried over from the old country and, undoubtedly, she was also influenced by the need to be frugal as she had gone through WWII in her homeland.  The tradition continued all her years here in America.  I always thought it was a nice touch.  And it didn’t really increase her workload at all.  She reused the napkins for family use only (there were eight family members) and only washed the napkins with the family’s clothes once a week.  She then would neatly fold them while damp  and never would iron them. I don’t think she ever ironed them even with a dryer as they were for family use only.  Napkins for guests were treated differently, of course.

This is a tradition that we have always followed in on our homestead.   I can’t tell you how many times folks comment how they noticed we don’t have a paper towel dispenser in the kitchen, or when a visitor comes calling  and we give them a bite to eat, they certainly notice  our cloth napkins.    It most certainly makes both economical and eco sense.

What about you?  What SMALL changes have you made on your homestead that are having  BIG impact?


  1. Leslie says:

    Cotton bandanas make great table napkins for everyday use. Colorful addition to the table. I do wash them after use: they are first into the sudsy dishwater (before soiled dishes.) and last into the dish rinse water. They dry in virtually minutes — you can hang them anyway.

  2. Trina says:

    We, too, utilize cloth napkins and hankies. Cloth wipes in the bathroom for the family and reusable feminine products also dramatically reduces how much paper products we go through. Another thing we do to reduce the waste our house produces is to always bring our own containers to the grocery store and fill them up with our needed bulk goods. When I started doing this several years ago, no one else was doing it at my grocery store. However, I see quite a few people doing it now. Not only have I reduced our waste, but it has inspired others to do the same.

  3. Stacy~Creativemuse says:

    I adore Hankies. This is a Gorgeous Photograph just look at that lace. YUMMY! I went hanky wild on E bay a few years ago. I have the good fortune to have my and my husbands Grandmothers Handkerchiefs and blessed with many lovely Hankies. I was so Happy to give lovely lacy ones to my Sister and Sister in Love for their weddings. I love a Hanky Curtain and have seen some Hanky Aprons!
    As for paper towels in our home we chose to use dishtowels for everything. We have cleaning cloths. Reusable Cloth Mops. Now I will get those Hankies out of storage and give them to my children. They don’t need to be museum pieces. How fun will it be to pick!

  4. Karen says:

    I’ve been thinking about switching to hankies instead of Kleenex for awhile, especially since I tend to have the sniffles through the entire winter. I’ve been wondering what cloth would work best for them. Is there…er…. a more absorbent cloth I can make them out of or would straight up cotton work well?

    I gave up using paper towels awhile ago, both at home and when away from the house. I carry a towel to use when I’m in public restrooms.

    • Abbi says:

      My family likes to use Hankies (as well as cloth napkins) and when I am sewing them up I like to use a nice cotton flannel (I have recycled flannel shirts and pajama pants) as they are very soft and absorbant. Those hankies are more for use than for “show” and they work well!

  5. Caroline says:

    Being French using an handkerchief is nothing new. I came to America with a couple of dozens in my luggage, and still use them to these days. As for paper napkins it never occurred to me to buy any, I’m using cloth ones for myself everyday and of course for my guest, who never failed to notice them and think I’m very elegant! The napkins too came in my luggage from France. I didn’t consider these habits being eco-friendly but I guess they are.
    I use to make fun at my Grand-mother who used a dish cloth instead of a sponge, I thought it was very old-fashion not modern. After buying sponges for years, I’m now using a dish clothe to wash my dishes and I thought of my Grand-mother and know she was so right and I was so ignorant.

    • lieveheersbeestje says:

      Hi Caroline! I live in the Netherlands and we all use sponge or brushes to do the washing of the dishes, and I never ever thought of a washable dishcloth…can it clean pans too? It might be more hygenic as you can take a clean one each day and wash the old one, a sponge is used for a week or so..not so clean at all….
      Thank you for the idea!
      (by the way, I love France!! Went on holydays there very often and my parents for over 30 years…my familyname is french and my dad’s family originaly came from your country…)

  6. Elise says:

    My mother told me that when Kleenex started their “war on the handkerchief,” they were promoting their tissues with “Don’t put a cold in your pocket.” (Believe it or not, I found an ad!)


    Men didn’t buckle under to the propaganda; most I knew used cloth handkerchiefs, even today I switched quite a number of years ago, and haven’t looked back! I have made some, but purchased some very inexpensively in Lancaster.

    I have been using cloth napkins since we were married. As I was folding napkins today, I realized that some have been around for 25 or 30 years! I have made them and purchased them new (sale) or in garage sales. I also mend them. I also have used “kitchen cloths” from the get-go as well. I serge mostly terry cloth, but also other materials into wash cloth sized cloths. They sit nicely in a box under my sink.

    We use pint size glass jars as drinking glasses, with the goal of keeping a “matched set.” Larger jars (keep the lids) are used for food storage in the fridge. Canning jars are used for canning.

  7. Lori says:

    When a t-shirt wears out, I cut it up into squares and use those as hankies (they’re smaller than traditional). There is no need for needle and thread. My husband is bemused by this, but I love having a hankie or two in my pockets at all times. Being made from old t-shirts, they are quite soft and also free! You never have to worry about ruining or losing one.

  8. Susan says:

    I love that photo!

    I use only cloth napkins, and have a few hankies but admit I usually still go for the Kleenex. Maybe I need to get some more hankies and put them right next to the Kleenex box so I can break that habit.

    I needed some more napkins so I bought a used bed sheet to cut into squares. Just make sure the fabric is soft enough that you’d want to use it to wipe your mouth.

    • Abbi says:

      When we were making the switch I just placed a small basket with hankies in it in the place the kleenex box went and switching went quite smoothly. My children now prefer hankies. We do still keep kleenex on hand most of the time for company.

  9. Amanda says:

    Yes, I use my own organic hanky which I tie-dyed myself and it’s great! Far better and more colorful and meaningful than a tissue. I’m looking forward to reading more on the Urban Homesteader, and I’ve nominated you for The Versatile Blogger Award! You deserve it. Check out my post for more details about the award and keep up the great inspiration!

  10. Kj says:

    Hankies make me think of my grandmother – I never recall seeing her without one. I have been fortunate enough to inherit some of the very nice, for special occasion, ones from both of my grandmothers who have been gone for many years now. I have several others that I was given several years ago by family. I have a special one that my father brought home from WW2.
    I need to make some more cloth napkins as ours have finally worn too thin after about 30 years of use! And since we live on a farm, I cut up a worn cotton sheet into squares and use them for cleaning the chicken eggs, wiping spills and rags for various other things. I use old t-shirts for straining Kombucha, tinctures and herbal infusions for drinking and making shampoo. Although we use little paper products, there is one product that I will not part with – the one found in the bathroom 🙂

  11. Heather :) :) :) says:

    Handkerchiefs …my grandmother always had such nice ones. I found one at a yardsale once that had the most delicate green thread tatting around the edges. It’s delicate I don’t use it for anything but as a nice way to display one of my favorite teacups 😉 🙂

    I use these large, cotton lint-free towels. They’re plain, easy and rewashable…and I prefer those over paper towels. As I have money, I’m buying more so that I never have to buy paper towels ever again 🙂
    Love and hugs from the ocean shores of California, Heather 🙂

  12. lieveheersbeestje says:

    Hi! I live in ‘the old country’, or at least next to Belgium. And we all use cotton handkerchiefs overhere. Although mostly children and older people do. (my dad never ever put on his pants without a cleam gentleman’s handkerchief in it! It is always usable and you never know what will happen to you that day!)
    I have load of cotton handkerchiefs. I put them inside a tissue holder and my children all prefer cotton to paper somehow, specialy when they have a running nose or crying eyes from bicycling into the wind to school (now it’s very cold and your tears run inmedeatly…minus 10 degrees celcius at night, minus 6 during the day with a hard cold wind comming from the north of russia…brr!)
    I also have napkins from cotton. So easy! Takes no place in the wash and helps our chidren to keep them clean.
    Hurray for cotton tissues!!
    When the children are realy very sick and having a bad cold, I even give them an old and soft cotton diaper (a square piece of cotton, not those modern formed) to blow their noses. Somehow this gives a nice feeling of being a baby again…

  13. Amy says:

    I cut circles out of old t-shirts (using a small plate and rotary cutter) for our hankie (we just call them tissues). They’re colorful & fun, plus I like the fact that we’re able to re-use the t-shirt fabric once the shirt is unwearable rather than throwing it away. We bought our cloth napkins, but went with a dark brown color. They never get stained! I re-use several times before washing (husband does not) & wash them along with the other kitchen towels and cloths we use to wipe counters/dishes/messes with. I’ve also made some smaller coth napkins for my kids using fun cotton fabrics (usually leftovers from other projects) in prints they enjoy. The smaller size seems more appropriate than the 12×12″ size of the purchased napkins. I plan to make some more in the smaller size for us as well (especially for the hubby). 🙂

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