The Secret Life of a Handkerchief from Paris

Sometimes an antique find intrigues me so much, that I can only imagine the life it has led! This post is about one such a rare treat, an antique handkerchief, bought in Paris in the 1850’s, and gifted to another in 1899. Since it came with an aged little note, with the most pristine and feminine hand writing, let’s imagine the Secret Life of a Handkerchief from Paris together!


The secret life of a handkerchief from Paris

Generations of women have held a handkerchief for the important moments in their lives and wiped away tears at weddings, funerals, and really funny or sad movies.  Some handkerchiefs have been saved for decades, even centuries. Recently I was thrilled to be offered this very special handkerchief by one of my favorite secret sources {antique dealer that always brings me the best!}

This white linen handkerchief came wrapped up in a brittle piece of paper, and inside was a note!  The note states that the handkerchief was bought in Paris, neither used nor even ever washed, in 1851 and later gifted to Miss Isabella M Foster in 1899 by Beverly.

antique Handkerchief from Paris

I mean, 1851! I’m used to finding and selling antiques, but rarely does a sweet gem like this including a note with provenance come across my path.  I began to imagine Miss Beverly on a  romantic European trip, newly married to her wealthy husband {or perhaps she was the heiress, he was the third son who wouldn’t inherit anything?}  I refreshed my memory about fashions in the 1850’s, and found the following beautiful paintings that were painted in the 1850’s.

Not only were the dresses very full, it seemed the only way to wear your hair, ever, was with a middle part. {Heaven helped those who didn’t really look great with a middle part, I know I don’t!}

The Secret Life of a Handkerchief from Paris
Empress Eugénie of France surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting, painted  by Franz Xaver Winterhalter in 1855.

The Secret Life of a Handkerchief from Paris

Portrait of Countess Alexander Nikolaevitch Lamsdorff painted by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

The Secret Life of a Handkerchief from Paris
Portrait of Countess and writer Amalia de Llano by Federico de Madrazo in 1853.

Fashion in the 1850’s

I think the fashions of the 1850’s really brought home to me {again!} what a treasure these mid-1800’s handkerchiefs are. Seeing the fashions really brings home that 1851 was 172 years ago!


1850's plaid day dress

Being a lady who could travel and buy expensive souvenirs meant that Beverly could afford the best of the best. Hand made laces, gold lockets, gold brooches, delicate hand made collars so finely made of lace they were ethereal. And of course handkerchiefs like this one, hand embroidered with an “E” which was her new married name.

1850's parisian embroidered handkerchief
French handkerchief

I imagine the young Beverly and her husband stayed at the finest hotels all over Europe, one of the best places to stay in Paris at that time was Le Meurice. The Hotel was on Rue de Rivoli which was constructed in 1806. In  1811, elegant arcades were built lining the street designed by the famous architects Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine. Facing the glorious Tuileries Garden, property developer François Corbie thought it was the perfect place for a hotel. Le Meurice opened in 1835 and is named after its original owner Charles-Augustin Meurice.



Beverly would have stayed in rooms much like the ones that are still at Le Meurice. The grand dining room with its amazing ceiling would have been the place the newlyweds dined {minus the more modern plastic chairs} with elegant diners wearing gowns, plenty of jewels, and lace shawls.

Le Meurice-hotel

The honeymoon suite would have looked much like on of the suites at Le Meurice still does today, with the fireplace aglow with a fire many months of the year, and the windows wide open in spring and summer to give the best view of Paris.  Lady’s maids and gentleman’s gentleman {or the groom’s valet} would be either in adjoining rooms to be available at any hour, or on a different floor in much smaller rooms.

Le Meurice hotel Paris

Bathing here? Yes please…I can only imagine Beverly luxuriating in the bath while her lady’s maid got her evening ensemble ready!

Le meurice bathroom

Shopping would take a few days, sometimes weeks, as Beverly and her husband wanted to have French tailor made gowns and suits ordered and made in Paris. Beverly ordered linens, embroidered silk nightgowns, handkerchiefs such as the one she later gave to Isabella. The two bought art and statues to decorate their first home, perhaps silver and crystal too. And then lots and lots of souvenirs for friends and family. Such a life!


1850 lace, gold brooches and lady's accessories

A favorite purchase at the time was a silk shawl, with the most delicate lace edging for wrapping over gowns on summer evenings. The shawls like this were so fine, and delicate, that they could do double duty to “fill in” a too low neckline or add a bit of warmth to a lady’s chest area when needed.  A Mourning Brooch was a favored gift for a grandmama or mother to keep a photo or a lock of hair in from a loved one who had passed away.  Beverly might have received an antique Pique Inlay etui case from her new husband to keep a small collection of sewing supplies in her reticule.  And her Parisian seamstress who was creating gowns added this {amazingly rare to find!} French boned velvet beaded collar to one of her elegant day gowns.

antique French laces

Shopping for lace was a treat as Beverly was shown only the very finest lace collars, shawls, cuffs, and bonnet veils. She couldn’t decide how many of each, and it’s no wonder! A Brussels lace bonnet veil was a must, perhaps three?  A few collars to dress up a more simple day dress, but which one to choose? The all white hand made Belgian bobbin lace collar was so attractive, and then, well, she was shown a gorgeous Princess lace collar and matching cuffs, who could say no to those?! A Princes lace shawl was added to the pile. While it wasn’t until the end of the 1800’s that the Belgian royal family granted permission to call this tape lace Princess Lace, I’m imagining finely made laces like this were part of the types of laces Beverly and her friends loved.

antique french wallet

Back to the handkerchief. Since it was so special, I wonder who Isabella was to Beverly?  Since the note says “please accept and oblige the donor” it wouldn’t have been a close relative. “To oblige” means that Beverly asked the recipient of her gift to please accept it as a favor to her.  Isabella kept the handkerchief wrapped in paper with the note all these years, and perhaps it was handed down to a daughter or daughter in law.

The secret life of a handkerchief from Paris

Now my favorite dealer found it for me, I know soon it will go live with one of our clients who will treasure this little piece of linen with the beautiful embroidered monogram on it as part of her collection. This is the magic of antiques and why I love what I do! It’s the lives they have lived, it’s the stories we can imagine belonging to them, and the stories that the new care takers will add to their history.


Thank you for joining me in my fantasy about young Beverly and her trip to Paris. You can shop all our exciting lady’s accessories that Beverly might have bought in Paris  HERE >


Shop for the best in French Antiques, furniture with the patina of age, vintage accessories to delight you and your family & friends, and French Country utilitarian pieces. Treasures that make your home fresh, beautiful, inspirational and above all uniquely yours. Visit our shop

15 thoughts on “The Secret Life of a Handkerchief from Paris”

  1. Lidy, sometimes the provenance is even more exciting than the treasure itself, and that’s saying a lot! I adore the stories behind the finds, and appreciate the extended period history. One of my sisters is the handkerchief, lace, and linen queen, in general. She actually learned tatting. I love the etui and coin cases. They are popular among my purse collecting friends. Thank you for sharing this and all your fascinating finds!

  2. Your sister is made of stronger stuff than I! While I love the laces, the linens and lace, doing delicate and intricate work like that is beyond me. I agree, dear Rita, that it’s sometimes the stories that are even more exciting than the finds – or at least just as much so! We’re so fortunate to be able to give these exceptional antiques a new beginning in their life, aren’t we? xo Lidy

  3. Linda Hovgaard

    I love how you built a story around all these beautiful finds and gave us a piece of history as well! I adore the paintings of the ladies from the 1850’s! Having the history or story behind a piece makes it so much more special and you have done a beautiful job of giving us that. I really enjoyed reading this post! Thank you so much Lidy!

    1. Thank you so much for joining me today, Linda. It was fun to write a make believe story about this special handkerchief! Such treasures, we often don’t really think about how old they are, what a miracle it is that it’s still in such good condition, and the people who loved them.

  4. Stephanie Engert Cooley

    Oh, Lidy, I just love handkerchiefs. I have many in my collection, most used every day, but one has only been used twice since 1940. It is beautifully trimmed in Belgian lace and was carried by my mother at her wedding. Then I carried it in mine in 1980. On both occasions it was gently tucked inside a small prayer book which was also originally carried by my maternal grandmother in her wedding in 1910. I can’t remember who said this, but, and I am paraphrasing, old things are so much better than new things because they tell a story!

    1. Stephanie, how wonderful that you have your most special handkerchief carried at your mother and your own wedding! I so agree, old things are so much better than new things because they tell a story!

  5. The handkerchief is a sweet piece of history, isn’t it?

  6. Marion

    Thank You Lidy for sharing your Handkerchief story. My sister has a collection of twin and I have a few that we received as children.
    Marion,Marilyn and Joan

    1. Marion, I love that you still have a few handkerchiefs that you received as children, I still have 2!

  7. Alice Genzlinger

    Oh how I loved your handkerchief story. I think you imagine lovely stories to go with all your pretty purchases. The dresses the Ladies wear in the pictures are so beautiful. My mother was a seamstress and I can only imagine the work involved to make them. Beautiful post.

    1. Thank you Alice! I loved this post too, as I often have to keep myself from daydreaming about “our” antiques in the shop, and the lives they’ve lived, so I can get back to work!

  8. Jean Van Buskirk

    Bonjour, Lidy,
    What a sweet and touching story, I love history and just think how she loved the hankie and the letter is so sweet, all the photo’s are really pretty and just say PARIS and you are in love with everything there, The lace is just beautiful and all your word’s make it so special thank you for letting me enjoy all the above. Happy 4th and happy hunting~~~
    Alway’s, Jean V.B.~~~

  9. Thank you Jean, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Wishing you a very Happy 4th too!

  10. Sharon Crigger-Stokan

    I’m a little late to this blog, but I did enjoy reading it and the history ‘lesson’ you included as part of the story! So clever and interesting! What a lovely find and how kind of your favorite dealer to save it for you! Thank you for sharing! ??

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