How One Product Ended An Art Form

Posted by Richard on March 5, 2020

For thousands of years, possibly in every culture, humans carried cloth handkerchiefs.

They were the privilege of wealthy humans. Evidence of handkerchiefs dates to 2000 BC, when wealthy Egyptians carried bleached white handkerchiefs made of expensive linen. In western culture, the handkerchief became art by the 14th century. Queens embroidered silk, lace handkerchiefs. They were carried not just for personal hygiene, but also became symbols of love, according to Even Shakespeare wrote about them. By the early 20th century, every respectable person carried a handkerchief, many tatted by grandma.

Then, in the 1920s, the cloth handkerchief was rendered obsolete when the paper company Kimberly-Clark came up with a disposable tissue. But how could one product effectively kill thousands of years of tradition and art?

The answer is probably the flu.
From 1918 to 1920, the flu pandemic infected 500 million people around the world. At least 50 million died. Some sources say 100 million. Everyone knew people who died of the flu. People were wary of touching things. They avoided crowds and conversations.
The public suspected everything, but they especially suspected handkerchiefs. People were urged to carry them to avoid sneezing in public so they wouldn’t pass cold and flu viruses. But, didn’t that mean the viruses were in the actual handkerchief?
Kimberly-Clark’s disposable tissues were soon adopted by ordinary people. Thus, Kimberly-Clark hit on a slogan that matched the angst of the times: Don’t put a cold in your pocket. It was true that the product genuinely enhanced personal hygiene. And, that was the beginning of the end of the handkerchief.

Today, only men’s pocket squares remain as the remnants of the heyday of handkerchiefs, an art form rejected because of the flu.