Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bandannos, or Spotted Handkerchiefs

 "There is nothing in the world more common." *

This subject has already been covered somewhat by Paul Dickfoss in his article, "Spotted Handkerchiefs!" and by Emily at Emily's Vintage Visions, but I'm going to add a little bit more info. 

In the 18th Century, these handkerchiefs were referenced by the terms "bandannos," "spotted," and "bird's-eye," (and possibly "India") and seem to have been one of the most common types, along with white and checked.

Bandano handkerchiefs were listed among the wares for sale by Allen Jones in his ad in the Virginia Gazette on Oct. 31, 1771.

In her article "The Indian Origins of the Bandanna," published in the December 1999 issue of the magazine Antiques, Susan S. Bean states that although it was already illegal to sell them in England, in 1720 the British East India Company began sending bandannas to England to be reexported to the colonies and Europe. Like other Indian fabrics, bandannas were imitated by European textile manufacturers. Bean also notes, "The popularity of snuff in the eighteenth century increased the need for pocket handkerchiefs, particularly dark-toned chocolate-colored and red bandannas."

Some pertinent quotes from The Old Bailey Online -


"bandannos, which are spotted handkerchiefs" - George Armstrong, Robert Armstrong, William Cotterell, Theft > theft from a specified place, 13th January 1773

"a hundred and sixty-four silk handkerchiefs called bandanno handkerchiefs" - Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 30th October 1793, page 13


"a Bird's-Eye Handkerchief" - Ordinary's Accounts, 22nd May 1732, page 14

"two silk Birds-eye Indian Handkerchiefs" - Proceddings of the Old Bailey, 16th January 1734, page 21

"silk handkerchiefs, a quantity of cheque handkerchiefs, and some birds-eye ones" - Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 16th January 1752, page 14

"Q. to prosecutor. What colour was your handkerchief? Prosecutor. It was a blue and white bird's eye." - Proceedings of the Old Bailey 29th April 1767, page 24

"That Woman had a Bundle in a Bird's-eye Handkerchief," - Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 8th December 1742, page 28

"They were chocolate colour and blue birds eyes." - Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 30th October 1793, page 14

* "The handkerchiefs that you afterwards saw, at the Magistrates, you will not undertake to swear were the same? - A. Certainly I cannot; they are what we call a bird's eye pattern; there is nothing in the world more common." - Daniel Payne, Theft > burglary, 6th December 1797

India -

"I am a linnen-draper on Tower-hill: on the 16th of March, about seven in the evening, the prisoner, with a woman in company, came in and desired to see some silk handkerchiefs. I shewed them three different sorts. They pitched upon one. I asked them five shillings for it. The prisoner said, it was a great deal too much. Then he desired I would shew him an India-handkerchief. I said I had none. He asked me if I had any Irish. I said they, as well as the India ones, were prohibited." - Thomas Preston, Theft > shoplifting, 1st April 1761

There are numerous other references to India and spotted handkerchiefs, some of which may refer to handkerchiefs with a printed/stamped design.

"Watercress Girl" by Johann Zoffany

From prints and descriptions, a red or brownish-red is by far the most popular color, with brown and dark indigo blue a fairly distant second. I never saw reference to any other color, as I assumed those described as white with colored spots were actually printed, rather than dyed. The term today for this kind of dyeing in India is "bandhani," "bandhini," or "bandhej." It's a type of tie-dyeing that involves using thread to bind the fabric tightly to resist the dye. A similar technique in Japan is called shibori.

Detail of "The Peale Family" by Charles Wilson Peale, 1771-73

The fashion for bandannas never completely disappeared, as testified by the modern versions we still use today. However, the bandhani-dyed style began to lose popularity in the 1820s to the gaily-printed choppa handkerchiefs. The bandhani style hung on for another couple decades, as there are examples dating as late as the 1850s shown in Susan S. Bean's article. I found references to "birds-eye" handkerchiefs as late as the 1890s, but I have no way of knowing if they were the tie-dyed type. 

I scored a silk bandhani saree on eB*y whose fabric is almost an exact match for the one worn by the bottom left figure in this satirical print:

"it was a red and yellow India Handkerchief"; John Wilson, Theft > pocketpicking, 7th September 1743

You can purchase cotton bandhani handkerchiefs from Burnley and TrowbridgeTime Travel Textiles apparently carried some too, but their website is down and I don't know when it will be back up.

For more spotted handkerchief images, check my Pinterest board.


  1. Some sources I've found, if you search for Acc. No. 1967-365 on emuseum.history.org the man in the portrait is holding one. http://images.library.yale.edu/walpoleweb/fullzoom.asp?imageid=lwlpr05530 The man standing has one. http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/scene-from-the-register-office-by-joseph-reed-81136 the man in the great coat is wearing one. http://images.library.yale.edu/walpoleweb/fullzoom.asp?imageid=lwlpr19062 The woman standing has one on with an interesting border. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/ef/%27Death_of_Captain_James_Cook%27%2C_oil_on_canvas_by_George_Carter%2C_1783.jpg the man in the front of the center boat is wearing one.

    1. Thanks for digging those up! The first one isn't taking me to the right portrait, though. The third one, the Register Office, is really great. I wonder if the landlady from the fourth is wearing a European-produced resist-dyed version? It would explain the solid lines, or it could just be artistic license. The last one, Capt. Cook, appears to show at least two reddish bandannos.

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  3. Your welcome! Try searching for Robert Gilmor to find the first.

    1. Ah, there it is! Thanks, that's a good one. You can really see the bird's-eye detail.

  4. I just purchased an indigo one from Burnley and Trowbridge at the battle of Monmouth and it is quite lovely! Red being more common, I would have gone for that, but it's not a good color to have near my face.

  5. Found another, the butcher on the left http://images.library.yale.edu/walpoleweb/oneitem.asp?imageId=lwlpr02897

    1. Good eye! I think I found one on the ballad seller in "Girl Buying a Ballad": http://pinterest.com/pin/286049013805298169/

      Hope the link works.