handkerchief. In classical Greece pieces of fine perfumed cotton, known as mouth or perspiration cloths, were often used by the wealthy. From the 1st cent. B.C., Roman men of rank used an oblong cloth of linen (the sudarium ) chiefly to wipe perspiration from the face and hands. During the empire a square handkerchief of cotton or silk was carried, especially by women. The handkerchief was dropped by the praetors as a starting signal in the Roman games and was waved by spectators as a sign of approval. In the Middle Ages it was a prized possession and was conspicuously displayed by the wealthy. It was worn by knights in tournament as the symbol of a lady's favor. It came into general use in the Renaissance and was called a napkyn. Silk, cambric, and lawn, lavishly embroidered or laced, became fashionable for both men and women. Shapes were also varied. Today the handkerchief is more practical than decorative. Disposable paper handkerchiefs are used for all but very formal occasions. The handkerchief carried in the left hand of the officiating priest in the early Christian church evolved into a folded band that by the 12th cent. had become the maniple, worn on the left arm.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.