Spotted Handkerchiefs!
By Paul Dickfoss


My family, for many years, have used white spotted cotton snuff handkerchiefs with either a blue or red ground bought at a tobacconist’s shop in Cambridge England as part of our authentic clothing. I too have used these but never saw the research anyone had done documenting them. Recently I did some searches on the Pennsylvania Gazette for the entire 18th century and found spotted handkerchiefs used for both neckwear and as pocket handkerchiefs. All my findings were on runaways with the exception of one reported theft of clothing (those handkerchiefs labeled with N. L. for the owner Nathan Levering, see table). I was unable to find any shops advertising spotted handkerchiefs. I also found it interesting that none of the primary sources I searched referred to handkerchiefs as kerchiefs or neckerchiefs.

I have searched other smaller data banks of runaways but finding no relevant information. It should be noted, that although spotted handkerchiefs are present they do not seem to be very common. Many descriptions of handkerchiefs simply say “blue and white handkerchief” with no reference to the pattern. Most of these, I would assume, are check handkerchiefs as these seem to be more common. This should serve to demonstrate some of the diversity we may have in our clothing.1

Table 1 below is a chronological table including the item description which is word for word from the original text. If no information was included the space was left blank.
Marking handkerchiefs with needlepoint does not appear to be uncommon. In The Beggar’s Opera first published in 1728 — and one of the top ten plays performed in colonial America2—Mr. Peachum, a thieftaker or one who buys and sells stolen property, says to his wife, “In the mean time, Wife, rip out the Coronets and Marks of these Dozen of Cambric Handkerchiefs, for I can dispose of them this Afternoon to a Chap in the City.” (Gay, 1728, Act 1, Scene 4)

Later, Mrs. Peachum in speaking to a thief, Filch, who has just stolen seven handkerchiefs at the Opera says, “Colou’d ones, I see. They are of sure Sale from our Warehouse at Redriff among the Seamen.” (Gay, 1728, Act 1, Scene 6).3

Item Description

Date

Sex

Nationality

Job

. . . a blue and white bird eyed cotton handkerchief . . .

March 12, 1767

Female

Servant/ Fortuneteller

. . . two red and white spotted Cotton Handkerchiefs . . .

April 9, 1767

Male

Apprentice Shoemaker

. . . black silk handkerchief, two spotted cotton or linen ditto:

August 17, 1769

Male

English

Convict Servant

. . . a spotted blue and white handkerchief and supposed to have taken a red map ditto with her . . .

April 17, 1776

Female

Irish

Servant

. . . a red silk handkerchief with yellow spots.

May 29, 1776

Male

English

Servant

. . . a red spotted handkerchief . . .

July 17, 1776

Male

English

Servant

. . . a silk handkerchief, of a red ground, with white spots . . .

September 4, 1776

Male

Irish

Servant

. . . a blue handkerchief with white spots . . .

February 14, 1776

Female

Servant

. . . two Handkerchiefs, one a new silk, of a chocolate ground, the other a pocket handkerchief, red ground, with round white spots, they are both marked NL;

October 8, 1783

Male

. . . a spotted cotton handkerchief about his neck . . .

October 22, 1783

Male

Irish

Servant




NOTES:
1) Searches completed on Accessible Archives Search and Information Server Primary Source Material from Early American Periodicals: http://204.170.102.11/

2) Fuss, Norman H., 1997, Popular Theater in Colonial America; The Brigade Dispatch, vol. XXVII, no. 3, Autumn.

3) Gay, John, originally published in 1728, based on the printed text of 1765, The Beggar’s Opera; Transcribed by Richard Bear, as found on http://bralyn.net/etext/literature/john.gay/beggars.txt


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