What piece of clothing has played a leading role throughout American history?

If you guessed blue jeans, think again.

The lowly bandana is the winner. It’s been a staple of American life since before the Revolutionary War. (Levi Strauss didn’t start making copper-riveted denim pants until 1873.)

The bandana has many practical uses: as a handkerchief, of course, but also as a tourniquet, shoulder protection against sunburn or flying sparks, baby’s bib, dust mask, campfire coffee filter, carryall, halter top, and, most recently, PPE.

Over the years, the bandana has signaled wearers’ membership in an astonishing variety of groups, from striking coal miners to street gangs.
Bandanas come in endless colors and designs, but the examples shown here are the classics.
Best known for its red-and-white or blue-and-white design, the bandana provided advertisers with a blank canvas for promoting everything from work clothes to war bonds, from Disney characters to tequila. It has commemorated historical milestones like the nation’s Centennial and the opening of the Panama Canal. It can recall a memorable rock concert or a family trip to Niagara Falls.

Bandanas were a fixture of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Tom Mix’s silent movies. P.T. Barnum used them to promote his star elephants, Jumbo and Baby. Female factory workers donned bandanas in the 1940s to protect their hair against machinery. Television cowboys popularized them in the 1950s, creating a demand for child-sized versions. Bandanas have been embraced by the Ninja Turtles, the Frito Bandito, Popeye, Buster Brown, Aunt Jemima, and the rapper Tupac Shakur.
Cowboys, Rosie the Riveter, and Tupac Shakur have all helped popularize bandanas.
All told, bandanas have endured for almost 250 years of fashion, politics, and popular culture. Today they’re avidly sought by collectors at every price point. Vintage versions of traditional designs run in the $10-30-range. Older examples, or those with nostalgic images (Hopalong Cassidy, Elvis, Little Orphan Annie, or Mickey Mouse) command much more. The most desired—and priciest—have historical importance, such as the one promoting Andrew Johnson, who briefly (and unsuccessfully) became U.S. president when Lincoln was assassinated, which sold for $15,535 at Heritage Auction Galleries in 2009. Or an 1876 bandana celebrating both the Centennial and the Republican candidates for president (Rutherford B. Hayes) and Vice President (William Wheeler), which sold for $10,625 at Heritage Auctions in 2018.
Commemorating President Lincoln’s successor, this rare bandana
sold for over $15,000.
Bandana Basics

Americans didn’t invent the bandana as an item of clothing, nor did they invent the name. Bandana is derived from bandhani, an Indian, tie-dye technique that creates tiny white circles against a brilliant background—similar to the small, white shapes that adorn a classic bandana. Another familiar motif, the paisley shape, derived from the 19th-century woolen shawls from Persia that were later produced in Paisley, Scotland.

Both the design and the term “bandanas” derive from Indian bandhani.
Photo credit: Kutch.artesania, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The white dot and paisley design and its infinite variations have become synonymous with what we now call a “bandana print.” Yet the first, and arguably most famous, American bandana had an entirely different design. In 1775, Martha Washington commissioned a Philadelphia printer to create a square cotton scarf, emblazoned with her husband’s likeness and the legend, “George Washington, Esq. Foundator and Protector of America’s Liberty and Independence.” Within months, it had become a patriotic banner and, ever since then, politicians have handed out bandanas.
This 1912 Roosevelt bandana sold for $450 on eBay in 2020, while “I Like Ike” brought $48 in 2018.
In recent decades, the bandana has been elevated to high fashion. Ralph Lauren’s designs riff on the classic versions. Emblazoned with his RRL initials, new ones go for about $125, vintage ones can go for even more. You can also score handsome indigo bandanas—clearly intended for modern metrosexuals, not farmers or cowboys—on websites like Heddels.com, where limited editions sell out quickly at $45. Bandanas even have a cult following in Japan, also home to the world’s only museum dedicated to America’s long-gone Elephant-brand bandanas.

Even Martha Stewart is an enthusiast, promoting indigo bandanas for home-decorating.

What Makes It a Bandana?

The classic bandana-print bandana has working-class roots. Gentlemen carried silk or fine linen squares; ladies used dainty hankies. While these white handkerchiefs were elegant, they would never mask the traces of a working man’s hard use. A dark-colored bandana did a better job. It was generously proportioned (typically about 21 inches square) and colored indigo or Turkey red. It was made for the dirt and dust. It could wipe an oily dipstick, cradle a broken arm, sop up sweat, or carry a hobo’s bindle. It was cheap to produce and easy to ship. Anyone could afford it.

Wrap Your Head around These Bandana Features

Bandanas have never gone away. You can still buy new ones at dime-store prices, although they may be as flimsy as cheesecloth. But these are not the bandanas that collectors hanker for.

If you’re hunting for true vintage bandanas, there are specific details to look for. Cotton is more desirable than a polyester mix. Stains or tears detract from value. Experienced collectors favor a square that’s neatly and securely hemmed on three sides with a woven selvage on the fourth. And if you find a tiny elephant in the corner, you’re in luck–and luckier still if the trunk is facing down. The Elephant brand was made in the U.S. from the 1910s to the 1980s when it was licensed to Chinese manufacturers. A more significant change, however, was the flipping of the animal’s trunk in the 1950s, a detail that helps establish the age of an Elephant bandana. That’s why online ads for bandanas often mention “trunk up” or “trunk down.”
The “trunk down” bandana on the left sold for $174.95 in 2021, while the more recent “trunk up” example on the right fetched $48.99 in 2020.
Much of a vintage or antique bandana’s value, however, is determined by what’s printed on it. Bandana aficionados aren’t the only ones stalking these items; so are collectors in umpteen other categories: rural Americana, political and military history, cartoons, movies, television, the labor movement, Black history, rock concerts, advertising, and graphic design.

Prior ownership can also boost the price. Four quite ordinary-looking bandanas from John Wayne’s personal collection sold for more than $5,000 in 2005. Tupac Shakur made the bandana head-wrap a rap fashion hit before his murder in 1996. Today, bandanas “personally worn by Tupac” sell for $3,000 – $5,000.

Bandanas Today

Few of the hard-working people who originally wore or carried bandanas would believe what their cast-offs command today. But there are still bandana bargains to be had—particularly if you follow them back to their roots. Take a ride in the country some Saturday or wander a working-class neighborhood (past or present). Keep an eye out for garage sales, thrift shops, etc. Wander over to the boxes brimming with flannel shirts and jeans. Survey the “men’s section” of wallets, cigarette lighters, and golf items. Make sure to check out the kids’ table, too. These are all prime hunting grounds for bandanas, often at coin-purse prices.
A vintage bandana promoting Red Key Work Clothes went for $16.50 in 2021.
Whether you hunt at high-end venues or rummage through the bargain bin, bandanas are fun to collect—and plentiful. Displayed in a frame, stitched into couch cushions, or knotted around your neck, bandanas are the epitome of Americana.

Mary Young is a Boston-based researcher and writer. She vividly remembers her first trash-picking adventures in grade school.  She was hooked and has been a hunter and collector ever since.

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