Sometimes when I’m rounding the last turn of the second floor of Westroads Mall after walking five times around the perimeter I get this urge to make a pit stop. Most of the time I’m rounding this final turn around 9:30 am; the inside main lights are flickering on in some shops and managers with coffee in one hand are bending down unlocking the rolling grilles to let themselves into other shops. It’s as if the shops are stretching and waking from a deep sleep; there is still some time before they open. I have two public rest rooms to choose from. One is close to my final turn; you get to it from a walkway that connects the two long perimeter hallways and the other is at the opposite end of the mall tucked into the back of the Flagship Commons.
One of the mall anchor department shops opens early on two mornings of the week. If the stars align and the shop is open I saunter through the men’s section on the way to the rest room. The other morning I was stopped in my tracks. I was in the men’s ties, suspenders and socks area and there in front of me was a circular three tiered shelf display with a sign trumpeting pocket squares. I walked curiously up to the three tiered display and saw a collection of what looked like folded small handkerchiefs. I was baffled. Back when, I would have gone straight home and asked mum what are pocket squares. If anything was made of fabric mum knew what it was. Before she married dad, mum worked as a seamstress. She continued to practice her sewing skills by making everything from shirts to trousers for my brother and I and she gave any of our clothes a second life by seamlessly patching tears and turning collars. I rummaged around, turning over the small handkerchiefs, trying to work out what they were. And then I uncovered several boxes labeled men’s handkerchiefs; three 100% cotton handkerchiefs per box. I hadn’t seen a box of men’s handkerchief in so long.
I reached for my smart phone and Googled pocket square. I scanned the small screen, swiping and pinching, and deduced that the pocket square was once a handkerchief. It seems that in the 19th century when two piece suits became the must have fashion statement, well dressed men didn’t want their pristine handkerchiefs rubbing shoulders with the dirty coins in their trouser pocket so they started keeping their handkerchiefs out of harms way in their top left coat pocket. And it didn’t stop there; the introduction of different folding techniques, exotic fabrics and engaging designs, made the public display of handkerchiefs tremendously popular. They became a leading fashion accent.
When I was growing up you kept your handkerchief in your trouser pocket. And we never called them handkerchiefs; we knew them as snot rags. Girls had hankies. We would only call them hankies when we asked mum for a clean snot rag. Mum would always be telling us; use your hanky to wipe your nose, not the back of your hand. In those bygone times there was quite a few nose blowing techniques. And most have persisted through to the present. I remember blowing snot rockets by blocking one nostril and blowing mucus forcefully out the other. You would always step up for the snot rocket challenge; lining up with a few of your mates to see who could blow the further most snot rocket. I didn’t know it at the time but I was experimenting with the physical variables for acceleration along an arc; lowering my head to change the angle, or raising my head to vary the height of the snot rocket arc to gain maximum distance. At the same time as varying the arc trajectory I would vary the blowing force used to release the snot.
And sometimes you would cut short the nose blowing process by hocking a lugie. There was a skill and creativity in coughing up into your mouth a wad of phlegm, and then spitting the clump of gelatinous mucus out without dribbling any of it onto your chin. I soon learned that the best way to hock a lugie was to use several short controlled breaths instead of coughing; this caused the phlegm to collect as a loose ball in the throat. The last step of a good hock was to let the loose phlegm slide down your throat a little so it would gel together; and then you would give it one last breath to push the chunky chunk into your mouth. A similar challenge to the snot rocket challenge was who could spit the wad of phlegm the greatest distance.
I always wondered why snot rags were white. If you never took the phlegm challenge you ended up with with a thick viscous yellow, brown, greenish wad of expelled custard in your snot rag. There was no way to easily fold a snot rag over phlegm before you put it back into your pocket; you just kept folding until the phlegm was covered. The next time you reached for your snot rag it came out of your pocket as a hard encrusted lump because the thick viscous wad of custard had dried and glued the folded over snot rag into a solid laminate. Sometimes it took a little dexterity to get the glued layers of cotton apart; you always made sure when you were folding the cloth over the phlegm that you left an edge to grab later so that you could easily peel a layer of the snot rag off the dried yellow crusty mucus. And so I wondered why snot rags were white because you always ended up with a blotched yellow, green, or brown crusty stained snot rag. A paisley pattern or a yellow green Fraser Clan tartan would have seemed more suitable.
Sometimes mum would ask for our hanky. And we knew what was coming; our wincing and grimacing would not forestall the inevitable. As soon as we hesitantly handed her our snot rag she would twist and fold it and then lick or spit onto it so it became a cleaning cloth. Mum would then use the damp part of the snot rag to scrub some mark, that only she could see, from somewhere off of our face; or some dried food from the corner of our mouth. It must have been the acidity of mum’s spittle that dissolved the dried phlegm and snot and gave the snot rag those amazing abrasive cleaning powers. And I wondered if mum ever had an after taste after she licked our snot rags.
I don’t remember how many snot rags I went through each week; I know that I didn’t get a clean one every day. So with three males in the family there was probably twelve plus snot rags a week that needed to be washed. I don’t know what mum’s snot rag washing process was; if she separated them for soaking in her wash troughs or mixed them with the other clothes. My guess is she soaked the snot rags with the undies. She would have used the soaking water to water her orchids. Neighbors and friends said that mum had a green thumb when it came to orchids; they all admired her garden of orchids in the backyard. Maybe mum knew that the snot rag and undies soaking water was a balanced fertilizer and also had all the necessary trace elements for orchid nourishment.
Our snot rag was a cloth of all trades. Whenever a pick up game of cops and robber or cowboys and indians happened the snot rags for the robbers and indians were folded into a triangle, positioned under the nose, and tied with a knot at the back of the neck. The cops and cowboys would wear the snot rag with the triangle at the back of the neck and the knot tied under the chin. Snot rags were also used to signal the start of an impromptu bike race or a game. In the 1959 Ben Hur movie staring Charlton Heston, our very own Frank Thring who plays Pontius Pilate drops his hanky to signal the start of the famous chariot race. A cut, abrasion, or bruise suffered during a game of footie or British Bulldog would cause a snot rag to be fashioned into a makeshift bandage; to be proudly worn as a badge of honor. It was also great for keeping precious treasures safe. You always wrapped your snot rag around your pocket money and then knotted it to keep your coins safe. And if you ever found anything small and alive and injured, you picked it up, and gently put it into a temporary cocoon fashioned from your snot rag. Snot rags were a great place to keep the green caterpillars picked from gum trees; after getting home and filling a shoe box with gum tree branches the caterpillars were unpacked from your snot rag and gently placed into their new home.
Sadly the disposable paper alternative to a cotton snot rag, together with modern advertising, has caused the downfall of the hanky; today it is only known as a breeding ground for filth and disease. With so much history it deserves a comeback; so it’s time to take the hanky challenge. Now I’m not suggesting that you become an ardent hanky wielding fanatic all at once; take baby steps into the world of snot rags.
Check out the movie The Yellow Handkerchief.
Tie a hanky to your car antenna.
Use a hanky next time you fly to cover your eyes when you want to nap.
Try a magic trick using a hanky.
Wave a hanky to get someone’s attention.
Test out blowing your nose into a hanky at home to see if you like it.
Next time at a restaurant use the word handkerchief in a sentence.