News & Updates
Now on View: New Display of Historic Handkerchiefs is "Nothing to Sneeze At"February 23, 2023
While people in the 1700s and 1800s used handkerchiefs to blow their noses, they also used them to learn about political viewpoints and to share those views with others. Worn or carried by men and women alike, the handkerchief had both practical and information-sharing functions in the decades after the Revolutionary War.
The use of newspapers, pamphlets, and books to convey information, debate issues, and stay connected is explored in the Museum's galleries. Similar technology of the time — engraved copper plates, presses, and type — were used to print other paper items used for practical purposes, as well as textiles and ceramics. The images used on one type of item were often copied and used on other types of items, like these handkerchiefs.
That these have survived is nothing to sneeze at. Textiles are fragile, susceptible to light damage and insects, as well as frequent use, which decrease their life span. See examples below — and on display at the Museum through mid-August in the second-floor atrium case thanks to the Color Guard of the Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution — of early, rare printed handkerchiefs.
Anti-Stamp Act Handkerchief, 1765-1770
The appearance of this handkerchief and the following example is similar, and both present political content related to the Revolutionary War. This one depicts Englishmen who opposed the Stamp Act, which taxed many types of documents in the American colonies. King George III is shown in the center.
Revolutionary Heroes Handkerchief, 1770-1800
This example features a central portrait of General George Washington and portraits in the corners featuring other leaders of the campaign to secure independence, including John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, General Nathanael Greene, and General Benjamin Lincoln.
George Washington Mourning Handkerchief, 1800
Americans greeted the news of George Washington's death on Dec. 14, 1799, with an outpouring of grief. Many people made or purchased mementoes with Washington's likeness, like this silk handkerchief. Above Washington's portrait in the center are words from his funeral, "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen." The warships firing in the border may have been intended to honor Washington, given the close ties between the United States and France.
Declaration of Independence Handkerchief, 1821
One of the earliest-known depictions of the Declaration of Independence on cloth, this handkerchief includes patriotic symbols, portraits, and scenes. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams appear at the top. Scenes at the bottom show "the patriotic Bostonians discharging the British ships in Boston Harbor" and General Burgoyne's surrender to General Gates at Saratoga. The wreath around the text of the Declaration includes the seals of the 13 states, similar to the chain of states motif made popular during the Revolutionary War and used on Continental currency.
The Effect of Principle Handkerchief, 1806
This American-made handkerchief shows George Washington, based on Gilbert Stuart's Lansdowne portrait of the first president. Washington is flanked by an excerpt from his farewell address to his troops and some sentences from his eulogy. The images along the bottom — an American eagle, a British lion, and a tall ship with the words "Commercial Union" — suggest the maker may have intended to promote trade between the United States and England.
Plaque, probably 20th century
The portrait of Benjamin Franklin on this reproduction decorative plaque comes from the same source as the portrait of Franklin on the "Revolutionary Heroes" handkerchief above. In it, Franklin wears a fur hat. Artist John Trumbull painted a miniature of Franklin in a fur cap in 1778. Similar, or even the same, images were often used on different types of items during the 1700s and 1800s.
Continental Currency, 1776
This 2/3 of a dollar note shows the "chain of states" motif, symbolizing unity among the colonies. The motif became popular during the late 1700s. In this version, the name of each state is inside one of the links.