Thursday, March 27, 2014

Operation Hanky: The Uncommon Story Behind a Common Hanky

One rarely finds a duplicate handkerchief but there is one hanky that can be found in antique malls, on eBay, and at flea markets. It features simple embroidered girls with braids on a teeter-totter. The girls wear a long dress or robe. The floss colors are bright blue, red, and yellow. It often has a sweet scallop corner edge. There may be a label that reads "Cottage Industry Program; Hand Embroidered in Korea."

I had no idea why there so many of these handkerchiefs could be found. Then one day I was perusing eBay and found the hanky with a brochure and letter for auction. I bought it and discovered the amazing story behind this simple hanky.

In 1957 a priest was assigned to Busan, Korea.

Father Al Schwartz was born in 1930 in Washington, D.C. during the Depression. His family struggled to make ends meet but still actively helped their neighbors who were worse off. He attended Catholic school and went to Seminary and college, obtaining his Theology degree in 1957.

As a young man he committed himself to the mission field where he could live and work among the poor and disadvantaged. He arrived in Korea with a deep commitment to help the poor.

The Korean War ended in 1952, but refugees still flooded the streets. Unemployment in Korea was about 40% and poverty abounded. Within a few months of arriving in Korea Father Al came down with hepatitis and was returned to the United States.

Back home he felt conflicted by the wealth in America compared to the bitter poverty of Pusan. He talked about Pusan and started collecting money for the mission. He organized Korean Relief inc. and by the time he returned to Korea had raised over $100,000.

Father Al had worked for the Fuller Brush company as a youth. That experience contributed to his idea to offer a premium or gift with his letter of appeal in hope that it might garner a larger response. He started a cottage industry in the slums of Pusan, employing up to 3,000 women. The women distributed, collected, and embroidered handkerchiefs to be included with the appeal mailings.

By 1964 over a million cottage industry embroidered handkerchiefs and table scarfs had been mailed out. And the proceeds built a hospital, two dispensaries, an orphanage, a home for the elderly, and a technical school for boys! Then came a day care center, a cooperative farm system, and an irritation system. Money was sent to support hospitals, leper colonies, schools and orphanages all over Korea. Later he started Boystowns and Girlstowns.

This is just part of all that Father Al accomplished during his lifetime. He is in process of beautification.

Now when I see one of these handkerchiefs I want to take people aside and tell them the story behind it. The priest who dedicated his life to helping orphans and the poor. The Korean woman who so carefully cut the fabric, the woman who hemmed the edges and embroidered the children at play. And how that little piece of cloth helped change the lives of thousands. Thanks to Father Al.


  1. I have found the entire paperwork that are icluded in the above photos, in some of my grandmother's belongings. She passed away in 2007. I however do not know which hanky of the 50 hndkerchiefs that were in my grandmother's things may be part of the package. I do not find any that have the little Korean girls playing. How would I find out what other designs were made so that I can put the correct hanky with the paperwork? I do not think that she would have done anything with it because she kept EVERYTHING. Usually labeled with dates, who gave it to her and for what occassion. She had so many gifts that were in their original box, gift wrap folded neatly inside the boxes and labeled as above description. If anyone has any information for me please feel free to call. Central Standard time in Texas. Maret Valencia 210-415-9420 or email at Thank you. I was born in 1964 so the primary article that prompted me to this site (the literate quilter) (, intriqued me. What a magnificent project!

  2. There's an photo of a hankie with a different image here: Maybe that will help?