When the handkerchief went out of general use after centuries of faithful service, nobody even waved goodbye.
It would have been useless anyway. Bare wiggling fingers cannot be seen from the distance.
Nor was there a fond tear shed for this resourceful companion. That would have been foolhardy, as it would have necessitated the yucky gesture of dabbing at the face with wadded paper goods.
Fortunately for Miss Manners, handkerchiefs did not cease to exist just because a generation grew up without being able to figure out their use. Her problem of having goods she likes disappear from the marketplace -- white kid gloves, for example, or for that matter, short white cotton ones -- was not the case here. Handkerchiefs can still be found for sale, although not yet with instruction manuals. Goodness knows what the purchasers do with them, other than attempting to distract basketball players taking foul shots.
But there are many legitimate things you can do with them, which is why handkerchiefs were carried by both ladies and gentlemen for centuries. Even the two functions already mentioned are fraught with dramatic possibilities. Extending the visibility of hand signals is not limited to running along the train platform miming "I can't bear to let you out of my sight." It can also be for attracting attention while screaming, "You've got the keys! The keys, the keys! Open the window and toss me the keys!" to the departing passenger who smiles from behind the glass and waves back.
Anyone who might have occasion to declare "Don't shoot -- I surrender!" should be sure to carry a clean white handkerchief, although under the circumstances, a dirty one might do. The same is true of those who might like to notify passing helicopters and ships that they are not lolling on desert islands for their health and very much want to leave now if someone would be kind enough to offer them a lift.
Tears come in so many varieties that everyone would profit from the ability to wipe them away gracefully. There are tears of happiness at weddings, tears of sadness at funerals and tears at peeling onions. True, the last can be handled with a paper kitchen towel, but surely not the previous two. Should one's emotions be at variance with the occasion, the handkerchief can be used as a mask to hide sadness at weddings and satisfaction at funerals.
Wiping away the tears of others is also a charming gesture -- the child whose knee was scraped, the lover who was scrapped. The rule was that a gentleman always carried two handkerchiefs, one for himself and the other to hand to a distressed lady. Should he be a cad, this would be all the more necessary, as it is only sporting to offer to mop the tears one has caused.
Ladies had another reason for carrying spare handkerchiefs. A bit of lace dropped at the foot of a strange gentleman gave him an excuse to run after her to open an acquaintanceship.
Handkerchiefs can smother ill-timed laughter, as well as impromptu noises that would be improper at any time. They can dry perspiring hands and wipe outdoor chairs free of dew. And, as a last resort, they can even be used to blow the nose.
What item takes up so little space for the number of functions it has? All right, your pocketknife. But a handkerchief doesn't make trouble passing through security.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: In a conversation with my cousin about the upcoming holidays, she told me that she had ordered some clothing out of a catalog, which her husband would then reimburse her for. This is his Christmas gift to her. Is this some new tradition I am unaware of?
GENTLE READER: Which one? The tradition of husbands who don't give presents, either because they don't trouble themselves or because they can't figure out what to get? Or the one of wives who charge them for it but buy their own either because they aren't given any or because they prefer to choose their own?
Miss Manners suspects that neither is new. If neither of them minds the fact that this defeats the emotional value of presents as symbols of thoughtfulness, she supposes it works.