In the Pocket of History

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In life and culture, it is the little things that count. So many times it is the small details of history that say the most about who we are, and the times we live in.

How much more true is that of the little things we carry around in our pockets. How much can someone learn about life in the 21st Century by examining our keys and our coins and our cellphones and MP3 players and pepper sprayers.

I recently read of a chance to buy just that kind of look into the Victorian age…through handkerchiefs.


The following is reposted from More Intelligent Life.

Beautiful Blowhards

Leave it to the gentlemen of Victorian England to turn the handkerchief into something subversive. Fiammetta Rocco, the Books and Arts editor of The Economist, admires some unexpectedly profound hankies for sale at an upcoming Christie’s auction …

The handkerchief, at least in modern Britain, is a bit of a joke. Tied in a knot at each corner and worn on the head, it’s the classic seaside postcard stereotype, along with lobster skin and a pumpkin-shaped waistline.

But in other countries hankies are serious business. Pocket corners–handkerchiefs folded into a suit’s front pocket–have a language all their own, with monikers like Cagney, Cooper and Astaire denoting how many corners show above the pocket line. In Sri Lanka and Japan carrying a handkerchief is considered a sign of a well-educated person.

In America seriousness comes in another vein. There handkerchiefs are largely regarded as unhygienic: how disgusting to empty the contents of your nose and carry them around in your pocket.

But some people will put up with anything to advance the cause of knowledge. A student at Boston University recently wrote a PhD thesis on the cultural history of the pocket and pocketed possessions in 19th-century America.

It included a long section on the handkerchief. “The rise of the handkerchief,” she wrote, “was not simply a function of shifting social mores. It was also a part of the ‘civilising process’ through which the haves became readily distinguishable from the have-nots.”

You can’t get more serious than that. Except perhaps in Victorian times.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, handkerchiefs were used mostly by men. A collection of 77 rare rags amassed since the 1960s by Christopher Lennox-Boyd, a British print dealer, is due to be sold later this month. Many feature common male interests, such as grand industrial projects; sport (horse racing, pigeon shooting, cricket and boxing); railways; mapping; and, especially during the Napoleonic wars, the great naval and military encounters of the day (eg, the Marquis of Wellington’s visit to the battlefield at Badajoz in northern Spain in 1812 and Napoleon fleeing the battle of Waterloo three years later).

But many also show how political and subversive handkerchiefs became in Georgian and Victorian times.

One especially fine example of the dyer’s art is a large 18th-century handkerchief full of anti-Catholic sentiment. It celebrates the battle of Culloden in 1745 (lot 217, estimate £4,000-5,000; $7,900-9,900). Coloured with indigo dyes, it is printed on a single piece of fabric, yet has two faces and none of the dye has penetrated to ruin the pattern on the other side of the handkerchief.

Another technique is the handkerchief joke that folds to produce a punchline. One illustrates the “Eastern Question” (the conflict with Russia over the Ottoman empire), which in 1878 became the biggest foreign-policy debate in Britain since the French Revolution. It shows portraits of four of the chief rivals: a Russian hero of the Crimean war, Prince Gorschakoff; Germany’s chancellor Otto von Bismarck; and the Turkish foreign minister, Safvet Pacha. If folded across the diagonals, the portraits morph into a single head-that of Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, who lorded over them all (lot 214, estimate £600-1,000).

Another marks the first Reform Bill of 1832, commemorated on a silk handkerchief by a grey horse named Reform being cheered on by John Bull and the people (lot 210, estimate £800-1,200). Those on the side of right stand on the edge of a cliff, while the anti-reformers are falling into the sea marked The Slough of Despond.

Even finer is a white cotton handkerchief printed in sepia that shows the Peterloo Massacre, the turning point in the Reform movement’s progress, when a crowd of men, women and children were mown down by mounted yeomanry and militias in St Peter Field’s in Manchester in August 1831 (lot 209, estimate £500-1,000).

Among the most amusing handkerchiefs are those that chronicle the differences between men and women. One depicts the 1820 trial of Queen Caroline, who, like Princess Diana nearly two centuries later, was loved by women and despised by men who accused her of taking lovers, speaking too loudly and generally behaving badly (lot 183, estimate £700-1,000).

Another, from 1881, depicts both contemporary women and a vision of women’s lot a century into the future (lot 154, estimate £600-1,000). According to this artist, in 1981 there would be lady soldiers (still wearing bustles), lawyers, mechanics and politicians, while men would be wearing bonnets, minding babies and doing the laundry. “Now we’re busy,” states the handkerchief. If only they knew.

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