Have You Seen This Handkerchief?

15, September 2017

I recently checked my mail slot and found a Priority Mail envelope addressed to Archives at the Missouri History Museum. Because I’m the head archivist, the envelope was left in my slot. When I picked it up that day, I had no idea I was about to open a mystery that remains unsolved.

Color photo of mystery envelopeThis envelope contained a surprising mystery. Can you help us solve it?

The return address on the envelope was Uncle Bill’s at 3427 Kingshighway Boulevard, the pancake house that opened in 1961. I assumed someone from the restaurant had sent some old menus or photos. Imagine my surprise when I opened the envelope and discovered an old, stained linen handkerchief with the sun disc of the Japanese flag and Japanese characters printed on it, possibly from the World War II era. Unfortunately, the envelope didn’t contain any information on who mailed the handkerchief, why they had it, or when and how they obtained it. I showed the handkerchief to both our military curator and our director of library and collections. We all agreed that it was interesting and an unusual piece—and that we couldn’t accept it into our collections without more information.

As an archivist, I work with our collections of original manuscripts—correspondence, diaries, business records, and the like—so this handkerchief certainly doesn’t fall within my area. However, I was determined to find the story behind the object.

One of my primary tasks as head archivist is talking to people who want to donate archival documents. Usually the potential donors can tell me information about what they have. Even when they can’t, my team and I can read the documents and do research to find and tell the story. The same can be said for donations of photos and film, but objects are different. Certainly, our curators can do research to determine the age of an object, who made it, and how it was used, but it will still be just an object. The curators need to know who used the object, where that person lived, how and when that person used the object, and any biographical information about the person. With these details, the object becomes a story, or, more specifically, a history.

Color photo of Japanese handkerchiefThis Japanese handkerchief appears to be from the World War II era, but we need help tracking down its story.

The galleries at the Missouri History Museum and the storerooms at our Library and Research Center are filled with objects that tell the stories of the people who made St. Louis what it is today. The story of an object is so important that we have procedures regarding unsolicited donations and items left on our doorstep: We can’t accept them, and we’ll either return them, if possible, or dispose of them.

I don’t want to dispose of this handkerchief, because I know it has a story. I contacted Uncle Bill’s, but no one knew anything about it, so now I need help solving this mystery. Does this handkerchief look familiar to you? Do you know who sent it? If so, please contact me at mkodner@mohistory.org or (314) 746-4518.

—Molly Kodner, Archivist

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