Hankies are a gross piece of cloth filled with snot that you carried around all day. They’re also great, argues Madeleine Chapman.
For ten years of my life, from 2002 to 2012, I had a runny nose. It wasn’t a runny nose like you get when you’re sick. It was just runny. The cause: allergies, and a supposedly allergy-friendly ventilation system installed in our home that made everyone’s allergies way worse.
Some people are good with runny noses, meaning some people don’t mind walking around with a trickle of watery snot on the edge of their nostril (singular because it’s always just the one nostril). I could never do that. Any hint of mucus and I was sniffing it right back up, baby. Except my mum had some sort of phobia of sniffing. To her, sniffing was the grossest faux pas imaginable. And her solution to the problem was simple: hankies.
Every pair of Canterbury trackpants I owned had a stray hanky in the zipped up pocket. Yes I owned more than one pair of Canterbury trackpants and that is my privilege. The privilege of inheriting a lot of hand-me-downs. I wore stubbies a lot too and their one downfall was having no pockets for my hanky. In 2007 they released a different cut that included pockets. I wore them every day. My hankies were always covered in snot and probably blood because I did dumb things a lot and they tended to end in bleeding.
The handkerchief – Hanky to friends, Hank to enemies – has been around for centuries. Historians can’t agree on where they originated, though some say hankies were used in Ancient Egypt. Was literally everything around in Ancient Egypt? Feels like it.
The uses for a hanky are endless but the most common are: wiping face (you know how your face gets sweaty and sometimes gets coal on it), blowing nose, clotting a small stab wound, holding a handful of nuts and berries found in the forest, not unfolding it but patting your lips performatively with one corner, coughing into one before showing the audience the blood spots to signal that you are dying. It’s a must-have for children and adults alike.
At least that’s what I thought until I visited other people’s homes growing up and saw not one small piece of embroidered cloth. Instead, boxes of tissues were scattered eeeeeverywhere. I watched my friends casually take two, three, four tissues, give one halfhearted wipe of their nose, and throw the whole thing away. I watched them and I wept. Into my hanky.
Hankies sound gross but sans snot they’re a lovely accessory. My chore for many years growing up was the ironing. Every Saturday I spent up to two hours ironing shirts and pants and dresses and hankies. The hankies were my favourite. So easy (literally a flat piece of material) and so satisfying to fold (sometimes a triangle, sometimes a rectangle, depending on my mood). The little pile of soft hankies, all neatly pressed, made me feel like some sort of character in a Jane Austen movie. One that gets tuberculosis and dies before anything cool happens to them.
If hankies make you feel gross, just think of them as a gentlemanly pocket square. I love the visibility of a pocket square. It lets everyone know immediately that in a few particular situations, this person will be helpful. How great would it be if everyone walked around with their accessories visible? Women would be walking around with a visible pad in their breast pocket and a tampon peaking out of each back pocket (in this imaginary world, women’s clothing has lots of pockets). It would be a much better world.
Even without being visible to everyone, a hanky provides assurance and a safety net. Because no matter your thoughts on reusing a snot rag, having a 20cm x 20cm piece of cloth on hand is incredibly helpful. Everyone should have a cloth on their person at all times. It demonstrates readiness and an ability to adapt to whatever life throws at you, which admittedly is usually just mucus.
Wanna know what else hankies do? They leave your washing alone. The first time I heard someone complain that their load of washing was ruined because they’d forgotten a tissue in one of the pockets, oh how I laughed. A hanky would never betray you like that. And they’re environmentally friendly. Don’t glare at me for forgetting my keep cup if you’re waltzing around throwing away tissues all day.
Hankies teach us what’s important in life. Anyone who can walk around with a cloth filled with snot in their pocket isn’t going to run for the hills when things get tough. Anyone who can walk around holding sickness and maybe death in their jeans pocket is someone you want on your side. Hankies weed out the champions from the also-rans, the fighters from the flighters, the gross from the boring.
In 2015, my parents sold our childhood home. I had been living in Auckland since 2012 and their new house didn’t have a strange ventilation system that made everyone sniffly. Plus they no longer had ten kids growing up in one house. There was no longer a need for two dozen hankies in a pile in the hot water cupboard . When we packed up the house and took countless bags of clothes and bedding to the Salvation Army, many hankies were sacrificed.
“Does anyone want to take some hankies?”
The answer to my mum’s yelled question was no. I no longer needed hankies because I no longer needed to blow my nose every other minute. My dependency on a soft piece of cotton was over and I was an independent woman who could go one day without a cloth safety net.
I took two, just in case.