Long before American cowboys sported bandanas, the European snuff user of the 18th century suffered from an embarrassing problem: Blowing his nose into a white or solid-colored handkerchief left behind dark tobacco stains. He found a stylish solution in India, where textile makers employed a millennium-old tie-dyeing technique called bandhani to create colorful silk and cotton kerchiefs covered in lively patterns. After the Dutch and English East India companies imported these kerchiefs to England, snuff-takers embraced them to make their habit more discreet, and the name was anglicized to “bandana.”
By the early 19th century, Europe had started producing its own bandanas, most notably in Mulhouse, France, where dye producers developed a version of Turkey red, the color most commonly associated with bandanas today. The original dye was made of sheep dung, madder root and olive oil, and applied to fabric through a process so complicated it inspired “all sorts of industrial espionage,” says Susan Brown, associate curator of textiles at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. The familiar paisley pattern imitated Kashmir shawls.
In colonial America, bandanas were sometimes printed with maps, as guides for travel. They also made a splash during the Revolutionary War. One bandana from the period featured a likeness of George Washington astride a horse, encircled by a series of cannons and the words, “George Washington, Esq., Foundator and Protector of America’s Liberty and Independency.” Historians suspect that Martha Washington commissioned this cotton bandana, likely made in 1775 or 1776 by Philadelphia textile manufacturer John Hewson.
Bandanas have appeared frequently in American politics ever since. Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 bandana included the words and music for his boisterous campaign song, “We Want Teddy.” The bandana for Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 presidential campaign featured a smiling photo of the candidate and exhorted voters to go “All the Way with Adlai.”
Still beloved by cowboys and bandits—including a bank robber in Miami Lakes, Florida, this January—bandanas today are used as a handkerchief, neck covering, head scarf or, in Covid-19 times, face mask. “They were largely meant for hard use,” says Madelyn Shaw, a curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s division of cultural and community life. Despite their all-American status, the best-selling bandanas during the pandemic aren’t red, white or blue. They’re black.