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Textile Tuesday: Souvenir Handkerchief

Handkerchief from Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition, United States, 1905, 13” x 13”

By Natalie Wright is a first-year graduate student in Design Studies

Twelve years after historian Frederick Jackson Turner proclaimed the end of American westward expansion during a speech at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, organizers of the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon, argued otherwise. A vestige of this assertion remains in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection at the University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Human Ecology. Curiously, the design commemorating Lewis and Clark’s expedition interferes with the handkerchief’s pre-existing decoration: four red-crowned cranes, otherwise known as Japanese cranes, flying around a frame of bright pink foliage [fig. 1 , above, Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition souvenir silk handkerchief, printed 1905, Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection]. Stamped overtop the cranes’ wings is a banner that stretches across an eagle and a decorative line beneath the date “June 1, 1905.”

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing embellished this handkerchief, and many others like it, at World’s Fairs. In an article jokingly titled “The Government Makes Money At The Fair,” one journalist explained that by using the same equipment to create this souvenir as was used to print paper bills, the Bureau’s booth was at once a display and a demonstration. Handkerchiefs have long been a political object, as John R. Monsky shows in his analysis of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century holdings of the Winterthur Museum, but the direct reference to money on this example politicizes it further by recalling Benedict Anderson’s theory of nations as imagined communities connected by shared currency.

Fig 2 Lewis and Clark handkerchief back
Fig. 2, Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition Silk Handkerchief, Cowan’s Auctions

While there are other extant Lewis and Clark souvenir handkerchiefs, none that I encountered were overprinted on the same textile [fig. 2]. This may mean that individuals brought their own handkerchiefs that they could then print with a customized mix of symbols and text. Though the makers of these embroidered handkerchiefs are unknown, it is likely that they were made in Japan or China where cranes are often used to symbolize happiness and youth. One possibility is that the owner purchased this handkerchief elsewhere at the Exposition, such as from the nearby “Oriental Exhibits Palace.” But curiously, other examples of similarly embroidered crane and flower handkerchiefs exist from the same time, but as souvenirs from vastly different places and contexts. One from circa 1917, for instance, has embroidered pyramids with the text “Souvenir of Egypt” in its center [fig. 3], while another from roughly the same time became a souvenir from France that an Australian Serviceman sent back to his wife during WWI [fig. 4]. It may be that this example is therefore a souvenir on top of a souvenir.

Finally, scale is a useful tool of analysis to better understand the handkerchief’s significance.  By far the largest design motif is the eagle, with a wingspan that reaches from one side of the textile to the other. While incidental, the size relationship to the cranes, which are naturally twice as large as eagles, underscores the political context in which the handkerchief was printed. The Lewis and Clark Exposition espoused a narrative of progress through seemingly endless westward expansion that was made possible by Chinese railroad workers, while also taking place on the heels of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and a culture of “yellow peril” in the United States that would effect Asian-Americans for years to come. At the same time, a burgeoning “America First” ideology was taking hold in the United States that rejected internationalism and hyphenated identities. The eagle, spread across the handkerchief to protect an idealized legacy of Lewis and Clark’s expedition while looking menacingly at the surrounding cranes, depicts some of these ideas and their historical moment.

Souvineir of Egypt handkerchief
Fig. 3, “Souvenir of Egypt,” Australian War Memorial
Embroidered crane silk handkerchief back
Fig. 4, Embroidered crane silk handkerchief, Australian War Memorial












Anderson, Benedict; Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso Books, 2006).
Bellion, Wendy, “Mast Trees, Liberty Poles, and the Politics of Scale in the Late Colonial New York,” in Scale, ed. Jennifer L. Roberts (Chicago: Terra Foundation for American Art, 2016), 218-249.
Churchwell, Sarah, “America First 1900-1916: Pure Americanism Against the Universe,” in Behold, Amerca: The Entangled History of “America First” and “The American Dream” (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 39-83.
Koch, Felix, “The Government Makes Money At The Fair,” The American Printer: A Magazine of Printing, Volume 60, No. 3 (May 1915): 296.
Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition Illustrated, reproduced here.
Monsky, John R. “From the Collection: Finding America in Its First Political Textile,” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Winter 2002): 239 – 264.



#TextileTuesday is a yearlong series celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.HLATC 50th anniversary logo

In 2019, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Human Ecology launched a yearlong anniversary celebration of the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection. Over the past half century, the collection has grown from an original 4,000-piece gift to more than 13,000 objects that have inspired and informed thousands of students, researchers, historians, and textile aficionados. The 50-year celebration began on January 27, 2019, with the opening of new Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery, a space dedicated to year-round displays of the collections. Activities continue into 2019 with a calendar of public exhibitions, symposia, lectures, and public workshops.