Hankies and History

The flat gift box, about 10 by 12 inches, was buried between some envelopes of old snapshots and a stack of bags containing Mom’s high school reunion programs, newspaper clippings and other mementos. I lifted off the lid, covered in silvery paper.

Inside were more than 20 handkerchiefs, a small silver jelly spoon and an envelope. Most of the hankies were folded and pressed in full “display” mode to show off the designs on their corners, their labels still clinging to the fabric.

They are all made of linen, I think, some with pulled-thread openwork, delicate appliqué or fine, satiny embroidery. Two or three are almost as sheer as a bridal veil. Some are plain white ones hemmed with lace; several are printed and very soft. A couple look homemade and hand-embroidered, one of them with the letter “C” and a sprig of lily-of-the-valley. In other words, a real mixed bag.

I pulled two hand-lettered poems from the envelope, both of them written in farewell. It turns out that my grandmother Sylvia’s friends, who called themselves the “Wednesday Club,” had given her a handkerchief “going-away” party. After about 15 years in their small town, she and my grandfather were moving into the city, just 22 miles away. My grandfather had a job with the state finance department, overseeing small independent banks across the state.

The shorter poem, just six lines, explained the purpose of the party:

Her husband handles banks
But what she likes is hanks! …

The longer one spoke in a lighthearted tone about the friendship between the women, encouraging Sylvia to remember them and stay in touch. Though I knew the party had happened long before I was born, the delicate hankies called to mind my grandmother’s ladylike ways and how her hair was always done just so. But then some lines in the last two stanzas of the poem struck a foreign note:

So when we get crooked with rationing points
And land in the great big jail,
Please don’t forget to call on us,
And offer to pay our bail!

and the last lines,

…but we want you to save a lot of your gas,
To come back and visit us.

What on earth….??

Then I noticed the date at the bottom. The party took place in January 1943. Right in the middle of World War II, when resources were scarce and the military had “dibs” on most of them. When silk was for parachutes, not handkerchiefs, and 22 miles was a long way because you had to hoard gasoline ration points to drive it.

This is my favorite kind of history lesson… when I can see for myself how a war that never came onto U.S. soil impacted the everyday lives of a group of genteel Midwest ladies.

Have you ever touched the past through some family treasures or photos?

Thanks for reading,

PS: I have yet to find out what’s with the silver jelly spoon…
PPS: If you’d like, come join me at Jen’s for the Soli Deo Gloria linkup.

About Jan C. Johnson

Welcome! If you like food, reading, laughing over life's little disasters, and maybe thinking about the bigger things of life, you have come to the right place. Besides blogging, I write humorous fiction, though real life tends to leave fictional humor in the shade. But I'm not a total goofball. No, really. I'm also working on a biography project. I live in North Texas with my husband, Brent. We enjoy bicycling, Mexican food, and traveling to visit our kids and grandkids.
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12 Responses to Hankies and History

  1. Janet Macy says:

    Oh – how this brought tears to my eyes. I always loved my mother’s embroidered fancy hankies. She is 89 y/o and still has them. I still love them.

    Lately I’ve been reading the letters my Dad wrote during WWII. It is amazing what he and all the others endured – and I learn the real facts in his letters. Precious letters – from “the front”. So lonely, so grief stricken over the loss of his mother a few days before he left for the war. He’d never been away from home before. His requests: send me a map so I can see where I am. Tell everyone to write. Send pictures of everyone. Send pictures of the cows. Sell my pigs and keep the money for yourselves. Lots of simple requests that helped him know who he was again and how he was still concerned for everyone back home.

    Loved your post. Just loved it. Thanks.


  2. Oh, I love the box of treasures that you unearthed. I recently opened a box of letters from my husband. They covered much ground from before we were dating, to dating, to engagement, to early marriage, to marriage with kids. The box was ten years old. It was just the kind of history lesson that I needed — the history of us. It was a well-timed reminder.


    • Jan says:

      My husband and I didn’t write very many letters except for a couple of college semesters when we were engaged and in different towns. But I treasure the ones I have, and those first cute, awkward, “how-interested-should-I-admit-to-being” birthday cards. You’re right — the history of “us” is an important one to keep in mind. Thanks for the comment!


  3. Jen says:

    Oh my goodness! What fun. I’m with you — a much better way to really experience History. Love that you found such amazing treasures!


  4. jean Wise says:

    What a treasure you discovered and a glimpse into your grandmother’s life. wow. priceless. I hadn’t thought of hankies for so long you brought a flood of memories to me too. Thank you for the refreshing post and peek into a bit of past history


    • Jan says:

      Jean, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Now I’m trying to think of possible ways a hankie could be worked into a garment or accessory. I like to use heirlooms rather than just leaving them in a box… if I can do it without destroying them, that is! Thanks for commenting!


      • jean Wise says:

        I love the idea of using them instead of hiding them in a box. When my mom died, she had a mink stole. NO ONE wanted it or would wear it since it was out dated. My Sister in law finally took it. A few years later I saw Teddy Bears made from fur and thought that would have been so cool to do with it. So ask some people at craft fairs for some type of idea. Or display them in a shadow box. Honor them somehow. They are priceless.


  5. Anonymous says:

    I know you don’t have grandchildren yet but here’s a thought. I made all of my nieces and nephew a baby bonnet out a hankies to wear on their Christening day or home from the hospital. You pack it away until their wedding day. My niece carried her hankie (I made it 28 years0 this past summer on her wedding day. She told me meant a great deal to her and I know it touched me. What an heirloom those hankies of yours could become. Enjoyed the story.


  6. Jan says:

    Thank you, friends, for the ideas and encouragement.


  7. Pingback: Family History, Part 1 | Joywriting: Everybody Has a Story

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