Considerations on a Handkerchief

At the start of December I introduced you to one of my (many) ‘favourite’ objects that will be on display in the new galleries – a handkerchief with a design commemorating the first manned, hydrogen-filled, balloon flight, that ascended from the Tuileries Palace on 1st December 1783.

The handkerchief design obviously encourages discussion and consideration of different themes: advances in ballooning; the achievements of Charles and the Robert Brothers; and the ‘balloonmania’, a craze that swept Europe. However, it can also provide a useful prompt for considering other aspects of 18th-century life.

Handkerchiefs & Snuff

The functional and social roles of handkerchiefs have altered over time, with changes in fashions and etiquette prompting alterations in their appearance and use. Examinations of inventories, bills and contemporary accounts support the proposal that the use of handkerchiefs became increasingly widespread in the 18th century. This most likely resulted from the growing popularity of snuff-taking during this period.

Tobacco was first imported into Europe during the 16th century and snuff (a ground form of tobacco) was initially used in late 17th-century Europe for medicinal purposes. The taking of snuff for pleasure later developed into a fashion amongst European royalty and aristocracy and by the 18th century, snuff had become the tobacco product of choice among Europe’s elite. In a letter of 1713, Lisolette von der Pfalz (Duchess of Orleans, the wife of Louis XIV’s younger brother), described her disgust at the popularity of snuff at the French court.

‘There is nothing in the world that disgusts me more than the habit of snuffing tobacco. . . . With a nose soiled with tobacco, a person looks as if he had fallen into the mud. The King hates it, but his children and grand-children take it, although they know that it displeases him. . . .’

Despite its critics, the fashion for snuff-taking continued to spread throughout Europe over the century, adopted by both men and women who did not belong to the aristocracy.

Having inhaled their pinch of snuff, a snuff-taker would have used a handkerchief for sneezing into and wiping his or her face and hands clean. The brown residue resulting from snuff use would have appeared unsightly on handkerchiefs with paler designs and so, as the fashion for snuff increased, there was a growing market for more practical designs which would help to disguise these stains. The busy design around the edges of this handkerchief and the expanse of red and black in the centre would have been well suited to snuff-takers’ practical needs.

The 18th century also saw alterations in how handkerchiefs were carried. Although still a ‘fashion accessory’, the conspicuous display of a handkerchief carried in the hand gave way to the less obtrusive use of keeping the handkerchief in a pocket. Men’s pockets were sewn into the lining of their clothing, whereas women’s were separate to their clothing and usually worn concealed underneath their skirts and petticoats [for more information about the history of pockets read this article]. It is not clear whether this change in handkerchief etiquette was the result of a desire to conceal unpleasant snuff stains in public or if the fashion coincidently facilitated this.


The production of souvenir handkerchiefs can be traced to the 17th century, with designs including depictions of victories in battle, royal events, performers, maps and unusual events. These designs could help to satisfy patriotic sentiments or signify particular allegiances. The move to carrying handkerchiefs in a more concealed manner could also allow them to become an ‘unexpected’ or witty statement rather then an accessory that required close co-ordination with the rest of the user’s clothing.

Supported by the increased market for handkerchiefs resulting from snuff-taking, by the second half of the 18th century handkerchiefs were among the most common commemorative items produced. The lack of construction required to produce the physical structure of a cotton handkerchief, meant that, depending on the intricacy of the design, once the printing blocks were prepared, production could be relatively brisk and economical. This allowed manufacturers to respond quickly to topical events. However, as the popularity of a commemorated event may be short-lived, manufacturers had to be cautious about the extent of production, to avoid being left with a surplus of unfashionable or dated designs that would be difficult to sell. Because the topicality of events was limited in duration, some handkerchiefs subsequently became collectors’ items.


This handkerchief is a square of plain-woven cotton, which has been block-printed, and pencilled with indigo dye. The two vertical edges of have been left as raw selvages, whilst the horizontal edges have been tightly hemmed. The two selvages demonstrate that the design occupied the whole width of the material used to produce it. The design would have been printed in repeat along the length of a roll of cotton, which was then cut vertically into individual squares, leaving only two rough edges which required hemming.

The design was created by a five-colour woodblock print, with additional application of indigo. A number of blocks would have been required to create the final design, with separate blocks used for the application of each of the colours.

Whilst the design offers some details of of the event (e.g. the barrels used), the execution of the block-printing is relatively crude. The clear linear appearance of the Tuileries Palace and the simplicity of the balloon envelope (the ‘bag’ part fo the balloon) help to endow the overall design with a sense of precision and clarity.

Blue colouring has been used throughout the design, applied using a method known as pencilling, the direct application of indigo dye on to the surface using a pencil or brush. This brings touches of lightness into what could have become a rather murky colour-palette.The application of the indigo dye would have increased the time required to produce the handkerchief but, as it is used for colouring rather than drawing design details, it would not have been too time-consuming an addition to the block-printed design.

The cloth used for this handkerchief was woven using an average of 18 to 20 threads per centimetre. Textile historian Philip A. Sykas’s ‘rule-of-thumb’ for plain weave cottons suggests that this constitutes a ‘cheap material’, implying that the handkerchief was not intended to be marketed as a high-end or exclusive purchase.

Who Might Have Owned It?

The slightly crude nature of the woodblock print and ‘cheap’ quality of the cotton indicate that this handkerchief was not targeted at an exclusive or luxury market, and that it would likely have been a purchase within the means of a wide range of consumers. The commemorative design would perhaps encourage it to be considered by the upper-classes as a topical, whimsical design and for those who were economically less well-off as an object for long-term use or as a keepsake.

The design could have displayed its owner’s patriotic sentiments, by celebrating the scientific achievements of France, and so was probably mainly targeted at French, specifically Parisian, consumers. However, given the great importance of the balloon flight, within the metropolitan city of Paris, it is probable that the handkerchiefs would have been attractive to a wider audience, who wished to commemorate their attendance at the flight or to present themselves as particularly ‘trendy’.

Snuff is recorded as being used by both men and women but there is little information available on the handkerchief designs adopted by women for this purpose. Whilst it may be supposed that women would have probably opted for the floral handkerchief designs being produced, it is conceivable that this handkerchief could have belonged to a man or woman. The presence of an embroidered ‘B’ in the corner is the only suggestion we have as to the handkerchief’s original owner. Whilst this does not allow us to identify the owner, it does indicate that he or she placed some value on the handkerchief by making this basic attempt to prevent its irrevocable loss.

I have managed to locate only two other examples of this design, both in the Musée de l’Impression sur Etoffes in Mulhouse, Alsace. Conservation assessments of our own handkerchief reveal why surviving examples may be so rare. Pre-cleaning tests undertaken by our Textile Conservation Department revealed that the dyes (most notably the brown) are not entirely fast. If 18th-century users discovered that the colours ran or faded when washed, they would probably have been less inclined to preserve them – or may just have used them till the design disappeared and the fabric disintegrated. The V&A’s handkerchief features some stains which could suggest that it was put to some use; however the edges show little evidence of wear, implying that it was very rarely used and was intentionally kept in good condition.

Final thoughts

This single handkerchief provides us with a striking example of how the scientific achievement of balloon flight caught the attention of a wide audience and came to affect the production of fashionable goods.It also demonstrates manufacturers’ ability to respond quickly to public interests and events; to produce a commemorative, fashionable yet practical object, which was both appealling and attainable for a wide cross-section of society. The ‘mass-produced’ nature of the handkerchief design initially appears incongruous with its apparent low survival rate. This fact becomes more comprehensible when considered in the context of the handkerchief’s production as a functional object using impermanent dyes. It could also be interpreted as reflecting the vivid, dramatic and yet fleeting nature of ‘balloonmania’. I for one can’t wait to see it on public display in the new galleries.