The Handkerchief - 38 Practical Uses for the Quick-Witted GentlemanWritten by Gavin Humphreys
hæŋ·kər·tʃəf -ˌtʃif (pl. handkerchiefs, handkerchieves)
a small square piece of cotton, linen, silk, or other finely woven material, used for personal purposes (such as blowing the nose) or as a clothing accessory
A pocket-handkerchief, mouchoir, nose-wiper, a corah, a clout, a kerchief, maybe muckender, monteith, fogle, foulard, stook, or simply a hanky. Pronounced with a cheef or a chif. It’s up to you.
They can be plain colors, Paisley pattern, Madras, embroidered, or my favorite - spotted. Just so long as you have one.
As Edgar Allen Poe said, a good blackguard should never be without a handkerchief - and there are indeed some naughty things you can use them for.
Equally, however, a fine gentleman should always carry a pocket-handkerchief. When it comes to gentlemanly affairs, it is an unsurpassable accessory.
Bilbo Baggins stopped the quest to Lonely Mountain in its tracks when he realized he had forgotten his handkerchiefs. And with good reason! Gandalf, however, knew how important they are on a long journey, and the wizard arrived with a pile of hankies from Bilbo’s house (in the book). The journey is back on the road.
And you should always have a hanky close at hand. This is why: 38 ways that you can use the Swiss army knife of traditional clothing accessories.
Blow your nose
To start with the obvious. Everybody knows that hankies are for your nose. They even get that rather unflattering epithet: the Snotrag. Far superior to paper hankies, which fall apart in your pocket, and always manage to get into the washing machine. But there is so, so, so, much more to cloth hankies than keeping your nose clean!
Wipe away sweat
If you are Pavarotti on stage, or a mafia boss on a hot day, or a businessman visiting a small Caribbean island, wiping away your sweat with a kerchief is going to be very much part of ‘your thing’. It’s not only for them though - all of us sweat, some of us sweat far too much. This is a classy way to keep your brow dry and look like you have everything under control.
Wave to people
Get their attention from far, far away with a wave of your bright kerchief.
Protection from cuts
Wrap your hand in a handkerchief before you break any windows.
Clean your hands
An unexpected guest arrives and holds out their hand to say hello, but you’ve been working on your car, pulling the weeds from your garden, or some such dirty task. If you have a hanky in your pocket, no problem! Give your hands a wipe, and you are set to greet your friend.
Tie a knot to remember things
You remember something you have to do - but you are in the middle of something else… you know you are going to forget. No worries, tie a knot in the corner of your handkerchief. When you pull it out later you will see the knot and remember you had to do something - now you just have to remember what it was…
When you cut yourself badly, you’ve been slashed by a thorn, or some situation even worse, DO NOT be without a clean hanky. This is an essential piece of your kit. Tie it tight over the wound, and it will stop the bleeding - long enough for you to get some attention.
Cover your face from dust
When the wind whips up that dirt and sand, there’s nothing worse. It gets everywhere. There’s a reason that cowboys kept their hankies around their necks - pull it up over the nose and mouth and you’re set.
When you are collecting the eggs from the hens, or you find a bush full of berries in the woods, there isn’t anything so handy as a hanky to place all the goodies and carry them home. Top tip - one hand on top and one hand underneath at all times. You don’t want to lose those eggs now, do you?
Attached to the end of a stick to carry things for longer journeys
Choose a stick with a little branch at the top, or cut a notch. Tie a knot between the four corners of your handkerchief, fill it up and hook it on the stick. Then sling it over your shoulder. You might look like a cartoon character, but this is an easy way to carry things when you have to improvise!
Give away to people in need
There are many occasions when people might need a hanky more than you, at that moment. Maybe they are upset, maybe they suddenly catch a cold, maybe they slice off a finger. Some people carry around nice, clean handkerchiefs just to give away in these moments. It’s good not to be attached to things. Plus, if you have your initials embroidered in the corner, the lady will remember your gallantry every time she looks at it. They’ll be right next to that bloodstain.
It’s dark, you feel alone, hold your hanky tight.
If you drop ice-cream on your phone, you need to clean it quick - hanky! You want to pull a book from your library, but there's so much dust - hanky! Muddy boots left on your leather sofa - hanky! Any surfaces you need to wipe in a hurry, you need a hanky.
Attaching an ice pack
Wrap around the ice pack, frozen peas, or chunk of ice (so that it is not in direct contact with your body) then tie it around the offending sprain or burn.
Ok, strictly speaking, you can buy dedicated neckerchiefs for this, but a kerchief’s a kerchief! With an open shirt, knot to the front, and you look like the stylish Mediterranean man. Or a pirate. Knot to the back and you look more like John Wayne. On your neck your kerchief will always be at hand, and you’ll be kept warm.
Wipe your tears
Don’t be caught out at your dog’s funeral without several handkerchiefs. You will probably get through a couple, and be ready to hand them out to the tearful mourners who might not have brought their own.
Cover your mouth when coughing
You’ve seen the people who cough and the whole room is covered in phlegm. Don’t be one of them.
Blind man’s bluff, anybody? Pin the tail on the donkey? Piñata? Nothing beats a little sensory deprivation when you want to have fun.
You arrive to watch the show and it’s been raining - you need to dry the seat. Or maybe you need to dry a blade before putting it back in the sheath. Or dry condensation from the windscreen of your car. You can’t beat handkerchiefs for soaking up moisture.
Again, strictly speaking, you should buy dedicated pocket squares. They are, in effect, the same thing though. And many a good handkerchief can double up for this purpose. It should be small and attractive. And don’t be tempted to blow your nose with it.
Muffling your voice on the phone
This is very “black and white movies,” and I don’t know in what situation you have got yourself into that you need to disguise your voice, but this is a good way to do it.
I mentioned pirates. When not around their necks, the kerchief is tied over the head. A fantastic idea if you are at sea and have unruly hair.
There’s always one of your friends who has a trick. My friend Craig never ceases to amuse with his flying-hanky trick, every time we have a few drinks in the pub. Others make hankies appear from the sleeve. Or some make things disappear. Whatever it may be - a little magic is pure entertainment. (*And from which comes the term hanky-panky - trickery and hidden things you might get up to in the shadows!)
You run out of ammo, the battle’s lost, there’s no harm in living to fight another day. Raise your fresh white hanky above the rubble and give it a wave.
No more screaming.
Oops, you left the evidence on the table. The police walk in, or maybe your girlfriend… Discreetly place your hanky over the offending object, and nobody will ever know.
You’re on your way to a job interview and somebody scuffs your shoes on the bus. The beautiful black shine you gave them now has a brown muddy print on top. Dip a corner in water, or (it may not be pretty but) the traditional way is to spit, and give the shoes a wipe. Just remember to fold it away neatly in your pocket before the interview!
Start a pistol duel
Not many pistol duels these days, I know. Nevertheless, the preferred way to start a fair pistol duel, if you are called on to do such a thing, is with a handkerchief. Taking ten paces and turning just had too many people getting confused. And you only have one go at it. You hold the handkerchief up high, and let go. By the time it hits the floor, one of the contenders will be dead.
Covering your head on a sunny day
Tie a knot in the four corners and this forms a hat shape - looks awful, but needs must, at least you won’t burn your scalp.
Wipe your mouth
When you’ve been sneakily eating your mrs’s chocolate, it’s always good to clean the corner of your mouth.
Tying things together
Tie things together - wooden poles, the top of a teepee, the holdall with a broken zipper, hands, rhubarb, that window which won’t shut properly...
Rob a bank
Robbing a bank 101 - hide your face. There is no more practical way to do this than with your hanky. Carefully tie a knot at the back of your head and make sure the handkerchief covers your nose and mouth. This should keep your identity secret for a little while. Much more classic approach than those Dali masks, and much less awkward to hide, once you are on the run.
Chasing away flies and mosquitoes
Pesky fly in the room? Shoo it out the window with your handy pocket friend.
Filter dirty liquid
When you’re stuck out in the desert, your gasoline is all out, and you find a rusty canister, just sitting there, you might filter the gas to keep your car going. It’s even tempting to filter that sandy water to quench your thirst!
Another one for you blackguards, or perhaps to defend yourself against the blackguards - fill your pocket-handkerchief with rocks and BASH. Bye bye other person’s head.
Covering your nose to stop bad odors
That smelly sewer! No worries, cover your mouth and nose with a bunched up hanky and no more gagging.
Cleaning food off your shirt
You are at the restaurant on a date, or an important meeting - Murphy’s Law - the sauce goes all over your shirt. Every other day for me. Discreetly retire to the restroom, dip one corner of the hanky in water, and rub out that stain. Dry it off a little with the other corner. This is going to clean you up nicely.
Hankies can help find peace and tranquility. Some people swear by ironing as a method to relax, and focus the mind away from the worries of the world. There is no better ironing meditation than creating perfect, little, crease-free squares from your handkerchiefs.
And many more usages! Leave a comment below to tell me what you would use your kerchief for.
Disclaimer! Beckett Simonon does not condone the use of handkerchiefs for any illegal or inappropriate activities mentioned in this blog.
At boarding school 80 or so years ago we used to fold handkerchiefs to make a “sloshed” – a form of cosh – but, sadly, I have totally forgotten how to fold it. No stones were involved!
This was an informative and entertaining list! Especially when my spouse glanced over to see “start a pistol duel” and asked, “what are you reading?!” with a hearty laugh. Love the disclaimer at the end.
Any recommendations on where to buy said hankies?
Sad to see the infamous Molotov Cocktail not mentioned here, though it would be the last use (probably) of said hanky.
They’re also useful as patches for old clothes!
I see a hottie and I hope he notices me. I get my hankie and nonchalantly drop it while strolling past him, hoping he will pick it up and, politely, introduce, himself, and the rest..will be history!
I love these
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