There is a host of mundane tasks a handkerchief can perform. It can help you blow your nose, wipe your chin, or mop up a spill. Or, it can hang out of your back pocket as a subtle fashion accent and a symbol of your preparedness.
But, as an ongoing Avenir Museum exhibit demonstrates, a handkerchief—more precisely, a collection of 1107 of them—can also tell the story of a life, and of a culture.
All but a handful of the 1100+ pieces on display belonged to lifelong hanky collector Florence Luebke. The textiles weave together to reflect the depth of Luebke’s personal relationships and the broader narrative of 20th-century life.
There are colorful hankies–originally marketed as travel souvenirs– that bear the names of states and other locales. There are white hankies with intricate lacing, and black “mourning hankies” intended to be worn by grieving women. There are hankies that commemorate events from the Rose Bowl to the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.
Most of Luebke’s handkerchiefs bear poignant personal intimacy. Many were gifts from friends and family members. Luebke kept records of who gave her which pieces; some of the handkerchiefs appear alongside the names of the people who contributed them to Luebke’s collection. Others are displayed beside personal cards commemorating occasions like Thanksgiving and Mother’s Day.
The exhibit contextualizes Luebke’s collection within the larger arc of history, tracing the handkerchief’s place in society over time.
The Industrial Revolution allowed for the mass production of handkerchiefs, and thereby helped establish them as mainstays in life and fashion. The affordability of the handkerchief made it a popular accessory during the Great Depression.
For decades, Americans purchased handkerchiefs through mail-order catalogs, many of which featured Hanky of the Month promotions. Luebke acquired about 40 percent of her collection through such promotions.
As personal sewing machines became ubiquitous, artists began crafting their own “DIY hankies.”
Meanwhile, the influenza epidemic of 1918, and later the polio outbreak of the 1940s, gave rise to sanitary concerns about the handkerchief. Though polio, being a virus, cannot be transmitted through the use of a handkerchief, Kleenex leveraged public fear to market disposable facial tissues. Thus, the popularity of the handkerchief began to wane. By the 1960s, the hanky was all but extinct.
Recently, though, the environmental consciousness movement, along with a concomitant awareness of the sustainability challenges disposable tissues present, has spurred a revival.
Today, handkerchiefs are popular on eCommerce sites like eBay and Etsy; prices range from $2 to $50 apiece.
Some artists incorporate vintage handkerchiefs into pillows, quilts and other work.
Doreen Beard, Avenir’s Director of Operations and Engagement, says the Luebke handkerchief exhibit is among the most popular currently on display at the museum.
The exhibit reflects a unique intersection of art, practicality, fashion, individual eccentricity, and collective history. It is far more captivating than a wastebasket full of Kleenexes.
From now until August 3, you can see Luebke’s hankies and learn the stories behind them at The University Center of the Arts (1400 Remington St.), Room 115. For more information, visit http://avenir.colostate.edu/avenir-uca-gallery.aspx
Photos taken by Will Black with permission of Doreen Beard