"Oliver Twist" nitpick: Why would anybody steal a handkerchief?

In Dicken’s Oliver Twist, Oliver hooks up with his benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, after Fagin sends Oliver, the Artful Dodger, and Charlie Bates out to pick pockets (Oliver being entirely innocent of the purpose). Bates spots Mr. Brownlow engrossed in a book from a street vendor, snatches his handkerchief from his pocket, and he and the Dodger run – while Oliver stands there stunned. Brownlow notices his “wipe” missing, raises the hue and cry, and everybody chases Oliver down the street crying, “Stop, thief!” As if he had stolen the crown jewels.

Why would anybody steal a handkerchief anyway?! It’s just a small square of fabric. Even if it’s silk. What could you fence it for?

I’m sure someone will be around to clear this up shortly, but I’m guessing Oliver was simply in training.

I’m not familiar with what the reasoning was in the story, but I know that in Victorian London, there was a huge market for used textiles. If nothing else, they could be sold to rag collectors for the making of paper.

They were actually quite valuable…

from near the bottom of this page:
Old Bailey Online

Wow. Great link. Relative prices have really changed.

A little figuring aloud: a second hand cotton hankie is half a shilling. A week’s hot meals = 12 second hand cotton hankies. A half-dozen new ordinary but OK hankies costs, what, about A$2? So even supposing no premium on new hankies, that’s like saying you could have hot meals for a week for A$4 - around A57c a day.

Allow for the idea that stolen second hand hankies go for a discount of (say) 50% and you get the idea that a new cotton hankie cost about as much as (cheap) cooked meals for a day.

The effects of law and order in such an economy must have been huge and highly dislocating.

I don’t know that the relative prices have changed that much; a good cotton handkerchief isn’t as cheap as you might think - probably not that different from a Big Mac or two… Here’s one for $10 from a gentleman’s outfitter, which caters for (very broadly) the class of person the Artful Dodger was probably pick-pocketing.

Of course, paper hankies are a different matter!

I love how you translated meaningless currency to meaningless currency.


But I very much doubt there’s a resale market any more. Who would buy a hanky from a fence nowadays?

A sharp dresser who appreciates a good value?

I’m guessing the fact that you can resell them plus the ease of theft makes them attractive to the Dodger.

From Meurglys link:

This makes intuitive sense to me as a (not very specific) explanation.

No, you have it backwards. Remember, this is before machine-made textiles. It’s not that meals were that cheap, but that handkerchiefs, indeed all cloth items, were much more expensive. Imagine spending A$40 to A$100 for a handkerchief.

Eh, backwards schmackwards. Only relative prices matter (which is why I “translated meaningless currency to meaningless currency”). Of course earnings were much smaller then - relative to today, most things were very expensive then.

Heck the movie From Hell (based on an Alan Moore comic about Jack the Ripper) was set in that time-frame and has a scene where a London streetwalker is thoroughly impressed by… grapes. Yep, grapes, those little green spheres one can now casually sample at the supermarket and buy by the pound. Post-industrial prosperity has been good to us.

I wouldn’t rely on that film as evidence of anything in the real world (Aberline as an opium addict? :dubious: ), but apart from anything else, you need to remember who you’re talking about: Liz Stride was a street prostitute who spent the majority of any money she made on gin, and would often probably have nothing to eat all day apart from a few broken biscuits – fresh fruit almost certainly wasn’t a common item on her shopping list. I don’t remember how the scene played out in the film, but if I recall the book, the grapes were only part of it – yes, they’d have been something of a treat for her, but she’d also been picked up by a well-dressed gentleman, taken for a ride in a carriage, and treated with some care and consideration. Her more usual transactions would have involved five minutes standing up in a back alley for a few coppers if she was lucky, and a beating-up is she wasn’t.

The grapes are based on fact, though: on the night Stride was murdered, fruiterer Matthew Packer said that he sold half a pound of black grapes for 3d. to a young man who then went off with someone matching Liz’s description. This is a small fruit shop open late at night in the poorest part of London – grapes probably weren’t the cheapest fruit he had for sale, but they clearly weren’t beyond the pocket of the working class, either.

[edit to add: Oliver Twist was a good half century earlier than the Ripper murders, for what it’s worth]