To this day historians can’t agree on what exactly the origin of the handkerchief is. It is a story, which dates more than 4,000 years and has sparked numerous debates throughout its long history. As with many other things, the Ancient Egyptians were probably the first to adopt the idea of carrying a small piece of cloth with them, in their case a piece of bleached linen. Evidence of this can be seen on limestone carving, preserved in museums around the world. However, they were not the only ones to realize how useful such a tool could be. On the other side of the world, far to the east, in the lands of Ancient China, people developed a similar custom. Yet, unlike the Egyptians they did not carry the cloth in their hand, but used it to cover their heads, protecting them from the glaring sun. In Ancient Rome the handkerchief had a quite different purpose, forever bound to the games at Colosseum. There citizens would wave them to signal their favor for a given champion. This ritual continued during the Middle Ages, as ladies would tie their handkerchief to a knight’s lance as a sign of favor.
In Western Europe handkerchiefs became popular in the 13th century as a type of accessory. Nobleman would often hold a scented piece of cloth in front of their nose in an effort to tackle the smell of the city. Decorated with embroidery and lace, handkerchiefs symbolized a person’s status and were so valuable that sometimes they were even passed on in dowries or wills and nobles would often insist for it to have a prominent position on their portraits. As the status of aristocrats rose, so too the handkerchiefs grew larger and more intricate, until one day in 1785 when the French King Louis XVI issued a decree which prohibited anyone from having a bigger one than his. Around the same time cloth production started to become cheaper, making the handkerchief affordable to the masses, until it was finally replaced by the paper tissues we know today.
Handkerchiefs played an important role in King Louis XVI’s life, all the way up to his death. Unfortunately for him, he happened to be the residing king during the French Revolution and was beheaded on Monday, 21 January 1793 at the Place de la Révolution. While his blood was still dripping to the ground, several onlookers ran forward and dipped their handkerchiefs in it, creating a kind of gruesome souvenir. A DNA test in 2012 on one such artefact was tested against a sample from the mummified remains of one of his ancestors, Henry IV, and had a positive match, proving that the story was more than a simple urban legend.
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