Full disclosure: I’m not really sure how people use handkerchiefs, or how they came to be, nor did I research the subject. I base the following on hints from old movies, my own thought experiments, and just plain horse-sense.
I imagine that, before handkerchiefs, people did that thing where you hold one nostril and exhale forcefully out the other nostril so that your snot and mucus flies out and lands on my shoe. Disgusting? Oh, yes. Did it effectively sever all relations between you and your excess mucus? Pretty much. This seems like the kind of thing people would have done in more honest, earthy, revolting times like the middle ages and the Renaissance.
Then came the Enlightenment, when Europeans discovered the power of logic and reason to guide human affairs. Everybody went around going “Aha! Now I see!” And what they saw was that they really should be dressing WAY fancier than they were. The ruling classes of Europe experienced a series of startling epiphanies regarding stockings, frills, lace, elaborate wigs, face powder, and drawn-on beauty marks. Also: clothes for women became fancier.
I imagine it was around this time that someone even fancier and with even greater delicacy than his fellows came up with what is basically fancy clothing for your snot.
Pierre: [Blows snot out his nose]
Gaspard: I say, Pierre, are you still shooting the snot out of your nose?
Pierre: But of course! Why? What do you suggest I should do?
Gaspard: Here, try one of these. It’s my own invention; I call it the “handkerchief.”
Pierre: It is beautiful, but I don’t understand.
Gaspard: Blow your snot into it.
Pierre: [Does so.] Ugh! Now what?
Gaspard: Why, put it in your pocket! It is what an Enlightened gentleman would do.
Pierre: Ugh. Okay, I guess.
Gaspard: Then, you can use it to polish your glasses or wipe away a lady’s tears.
Pierre: [Looks at the camera.]
That is how people started going around with collections of their own snot in their pockets. Everyone was pretty much miserable about the whole thing, but social pressure kept them from going back to the practice of snot-shooting. Handkerchief manufacturers prospered and grew fat and sent their children to expensive colleges, keeping the lucrative secret of how handkerchiefs are made well guarded and adding innovations such as monogramming, so everyone would know whose snot was whose. The non-snot-shooting world was in the grip of the global handkerchief trust, also known as “Big Handkerchief.”
Then, sometime in the 1950s, an enterprising young man named Arthur Kleenex had a brainwave: he saw a way to simultaneously address two separate problems: that handkerchiefs were gross and that there were altogether too many trees. (At the time, trees were thought to compete with humans for oxygen—hence the public health campaign “Fewer Trees: More Fresh Air!” Today, of course, science has proven that to be an old wives’ tale, and we know that trees actually protect us from the tiny trolls who try to steal our breath in the night while we sleep.)
By converting the trees into flimsy, disposable handkerchiefs, Mr. Kleenex made his fortune and forever changed the face of nose-blowing in America, freeing people from the necessity of carrying around wads of their own mucus swaddled in linen.
But, as Bob Dylan said, freedom isn’t free. Today, we are consuming trees at unprecedented rates to feed our global Kleenex addiction. So we must always bear in mind that the cost of liberty from handkerchief thralldom is eternal vigilance against breath-stealing night-trolls.