A simple little piece of cloth was often given as a symbol that expressed love — also known as a handkerchief or hankie. In German, it's "taschentuch," and in French, "mouchoirs." During war times, a hankie was often given to a soldier by the woman they loved to carry when going off to war.
"Handkerchiefs: A Collector's Guide," by Helene Guarnaccia and Barbara Guggenheim, is a great reference with photos and more history.
Most folks see hankies as just a piece of cloth to wipe their nose or eyes, but not as a true collectible. The true collectible hankies are usually made of cotton, linen or silk, and some trimmed with lace, appliquéd or embroidered.
Collectors often look for certain colors, themes or patterns, such as florals, children’s hankies, animals, souvenir hankies from various states or countries, vacation parks, and holidays.
Hankies are appraised by the condition of the cloth, their age, stitching along with the design, and how they were made.
Becky Gross, of Winona: “I have a few of my grandmother's. I pinned a pretty lacy one to the slip on my wedding gown years back for 'something old'; a cousin borrowed it and did the same.”
Deb Pearson, of Stewartville, “I had a hankie my grandmother gave me when I was getting married. Unfortunately, she died before our wedding. I passed it on to my future daughter-in-law when my son and her got married last October. She now has it framed in a memory box."
Where to find them
I like to find hankies that haven't faded too much and haven't been overused. If it has yellowed and looks dull, sometimes a soak for several days in sodium perborate will brighten it back up. Round hankies are harder to find, so that makes it a challenging search. Embroidered hankies from the 19th century are probably the most valuable because they have lasted 100 years, and are delicately stitched, crocheted or tatted by hand.
Like most vintage items, hankies can be found online, or at flea markets or yard or estate sales from 25 cents to a few dollars, but exceptionally nice or rare hankies can go into the hundreds of dollars.
I found it is more fun to buy them at an antique mall or shop, where there is usually a variety to choose from, and most have been cleaned, freshened and pressed for you! I have noticed that prices for hankies have risen recently due to their surge in popularity, as some are being used for masks for men and women during this pandemic. Even check out those bandanna hankies.
Joan Thilges, of New Generations of Harmony: “We have quite a few hankies throughout the mall. Typically, prices range from $2 to $5, with unusual ones priced up to $7. I've personally used pretty scalloped hankies to make dresses for small dolls or half dolls.”
Sarah Kieffer, of Sarah's Uniques & Jim's “Man”tiques in St. Charles: “I have a huge collection of hankies in the shop! They are each individually bagged, and are priced at $3 apiece. These beautiful hankies are a great addition to any gift — they can be placed in a pretty teacup, used as wrapping, put in a beautiful milk glass vase, and many more ideas.”
Neil Hunt, of A-Z Collectibles in Winona: “I have a drawer full. I did sell out of the Valentine hankies, but have a boatload of general hankies from $2 or more for the nice hankies.”
Bobbi Schlesselman, of Cat-Tail in Fountain City, Wis.: “I have a few in the shop, and the sales are sporadic. Sold two one year and 30 the next year!”
Shayna Dais, of Rusty Bucket in Winona: “We have a basket full of old hankies ranging in price from $1 up to $3.50.”
Sandy Erdman is a Winona-based freelance writer and certified appraiser concentrating on vintage, antique and collectible items. Send comments and story suggestions to Sandy at firstname.lastname@example.org.