A Hankerin’ for Handkerchiefs

I’ve been studying the design and production of 18th century printed textiles as produced for the masses. Printed fabrics became increasingly popular throughout the 18th century, especially as technological advances in spinning, weaving, and printing gradually made printed cotton textiles more accessible. This handkerchief is block printed with 3 different blocks or stamps. The handkerchief ground was printed with one block, hammered full of metal nails or studs to create the dotted pattern. The border was a separate stamp, and the corner motif a separate stamp. If you notice, mid-way along each side, the vine motif reverses direction. If you are thinking about design, fold this handkerchief in half (in your mind, please, as this is a museum object) and drape it around  your shoulders. The vine motif now reverses direction at the top of one’s shoulder, making sure that the vine is always right side up.

However, I notice that this handkerchief is only 20 15/16 x 21 5/8 in (I probably took that measurement when I worked at the MFA, so it’s probably good). It makes it a bit small to be a woman’s handkerchief of much earlier than the late 1780s, as women’s necklines would have been too wide and deep for the handkerchief to cover the area. If it was worn completely tucked in, then the vine edging would not have appeared during wear. That’s unlikely, given the attention to detail in reversing the motif.

Printed Handkerchief, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 99.884.

Printed Handkerchief, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, 99.884. 20 15/16 x 21 5/8 in.

I quickly tried draping a handkerchief of that size around my shoulders. It was smaller, but not bad. The fabric I was using was a softer cotton, whereas this handkerchief has slightly more body. It could have been used by a man, but then why the extra care with the motif along the edge? Printer caprice?

Thoughts? In the meantime, here’s an advertisement from the Pennsylvania Packet (Nov. 9, 1779) in which [John] Hewson and Lang advertise printing of handkerchief and gown patterns. The unpleasantness they mention in the first lines is that a competitor, Nathaniel Norgrove, took advantage of the war to steal and destroy John Hewson’s equipment. Two of Hewson’s counterpanes are preserved at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; click here to see one.

Pennsylvania Packet, November 9, 1779. The

Pennsylvania Packet, November 9, 1779. The type is somewhat hard to read in the center. It reads “printing of blue handkerchiefs, with deep blue grounds and white spots; also very neat gown-patterns of the same colour, which they will warrant to be as durable in their washing and colour, as any imported from Europe or elsewhere.” This is probably resist dyeing, as Hewson had limited ability to print right after the war, and blue dyeing only required resist paste and an indigo vat.

About Becky Fifield

Becky Fifield is a cultural heritage professional with 25 years experience in institutions large and small. She is currently Head of Collection Management for the Special Collections of the New York Public Library. An advocate for preventive conservation, Ms. Fifield is a Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation, Chair of the AIC Collection Care Network, and former Chair of Alliance for Response NYC. She is also a scholar of 18th century female unfree labor and dress. There's a bit of pun in the title The Still Room, delineating a quiet space brimming with the ingredients of memory, where consideration, analysis, and wordcraft can take place. Ms. Fifield’s interests include museum practice, dress history, historic preservation, transit, social and women’s history, food, current events, geneaology, roadtrips, and considerations on general sense of place. Becky and her husband, Dr. V, live in the Hudson Valley.