This question has been bugging me for a while now. Really, why have we abandoned something so basic? My guess is the issue of cleanliness. I'm also guessing that with some common sense, it's not that big of an issue. I think with some basic health info in our pockets, we can start pulling the hankies out and actually using them.
I came across this article after a quick Google search of 'handkerchief and health'. While there are some valid points, the author used Kleenex (totally unbiased, right?), an assistant professor of anthropology and a French major as sources. I searched more, and still only found more articles that were mostly opinion rather than fact. Most results were for fashion accessories. So I'm on my own with this one, another bit with an opinion. I can break the issue of handkerchiefs down into two main topics of discussion: the environment and health.
I have three words for you: Virgin. Tree. Pulp.
It is estimated that Americans use roughly 8.5 million tons of tissue paper each year (friendlygreen.org). That's A LOT of paper we are just putting to our faces. Surely that can be reduced. On a more positive note, Greenpeace (UK) states on its website "Kimberly-Clark has set a goal of obtaining 100 percent of the wood fiber used in its products - including Kleenex - from environmentally responsible sources. By 2011, the company will ensure that 40 percent of its North American fiber is either recycled or certified by the Forest Stewardship Council - a 71 percent increase from 2007 levels, representing over 600,000 tonnes of fiber. Also by 2011, Kimberly-Clark will eliminate any fiber from the North American Boreal Forest that is not FSC-certified".
Aren't handkerchiefs the same thing as napkins, just slightly smaller and wipe a different part of our face? What's our hang up with the boxes of virgin tree pulp (and I have never found a box that I find attractive), often infused with lotion and aloe? You can't wipe your glasses or sunglasses with those. Geez, the thought of repetitively wiping my nose with tree pulp makes me cringe.Cotton hankies can be washed and line dried, and like cloth napkins don't require a huge lifestyle change to incorporate them into daily life. I don't even use mine that often, just when I have a cold and need to blow my nose frequently.
Having worked in the medical field (pharmacy and ophthalmology), I've learned some basic rules on how to prevent germs from spreading. 1: WASH YOUR HANDS, 2: don't stick your fingers in your eyes or mouth, 3: don't share stuff with sick people. I'm NOT claiming to be an authority on health and sanitation, but I do have two things going for me, which are a little bit of knowledge and some common sense.
Hand- washing is always a good thing to do, and you wouldn't share (or return) a borrowed paper tissue with someone, right? Okay, same concept with cloth. Use your own stuff. If someone hands you a hanky of their own (presumably clean and unused!), you are to keep it, wash it and buy them a new one as a courtesy. There are inexpensive packs of them at Target in the men's section. However, I doubt that anyone will be presented with this situation any time soon.
Regular washing of handkerchiefs should do the trick to keep them clean. In reading some of the articles I found on the topic, I was surprised that some people seem to be under the impression that handkerchiefs are not washed often or that people who use them only own ONE hanky. This article on Kansan.com appears to have that general opinion. For those who would argue this to death I have one point to make: You wash and reuse your underwear, right?