7 Ways to Flirt Like a Victorian

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Victorian era could be a frustrating time to be young and in love, since the rigid constraints of social convention often meant that your every move was checked by a chaperone. Polite conversation about the weather can only get you so far, so many young (and not-so-young) lovers came up with ingenious ways to pursue their love affairs. If you're looking for a way to spice up your own romance, you might take a cue from these 19th century sweethearts—just make sure the object of your admiration has the same etiquette guide.

1. WRITE A POLITE LETTER …

The Victorians were avid letter-writers, with some areas of London having the mail delivered up to seven times a day, meaning that a note could be written, mailed, and delivered within the space of a few hours. A letter could be the perfect way of approaching the object of your desire, but the vagaries of Victorian manners often made the correct approach difficult to master. As a result, numerous manuals were published that provided template letters for first-time correspondents. The following example from The New Letter Writer for Lovers is a template for a man seeking to instigate a courtship after having met a woman only once:

Madam,

I scarcely can find courage to address you, and particularly as I cannot flatter myself that you have noticed me in any way. But, at the risk of incurring your displeasure, I feel compelled to express, with all deference, the anxiety I feel to become better acquainted with you, and to confess that you have inspired feelings warmer than those a mere acquaintance might warrant.

The book also offered templates for a woman to respond, whether it was encouragingly or not. Those wishing to end such flirtation could respond as follows:

Miss— presents her compliments to Mr— and while she is unwilling to consider his letter an insult, she trusts that in future should she meet Mr— he will see the necessity for abstaining from addressing her under any circumstances whatever.

2. … BUT BE CAREFUL WHERE YOU PUT THE STAMP.

It was sometimes difficult for 19th century lovers to keep their letters private, as notes could be read aloud for the amusement of the whole family. To bypass this, some reportedly began to use the positioning of the stamp on the envelope to reveal a secret message. The exact meaning of the various positionings likely varied between couples, and it's not entirely clear to what extent the system was used, but over time a number of writers attempted to codify the system. One such example reveals the following meanings:

Upside down, placed diagonally on the left side of the envelope: “Your love delights me.”

On its side in the middle of the envelope: “When shall I see you?”

Upside down on the right side of the envelope: “I am not free.”

Right way up on the left side: “I love you.”

Eventually, postal administrators decreed that stamps had to be placed in the upper right corner of envelopes—thus ruining the system.

3. USE A FAN ...

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Dances and balls were a good opportunity for young lovers to meet, enjoying some polite chit-chat and a chaste dance or two. But this sedate style of romance wasn't everyone’s taste, and certain young women reportedly began using their fans to transmit a rather racier message to their beaus. A number of 19th-century fan makers were quick to produce pamphlets detailing a "fan code" and advertising their fans at the same time, although the idea of a full-fledged fan semaphore was probably more advertising gimmick than reality. One such example was luxury Parisian fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy, who outlined the following meanings:

Carrying in left hand, open: “Come and talk to me.”

Fanning slowly: “I am married.”

Fanning quickly: “I am engaged.”

Open and shut: “You are cruel.”

4. ... OR A HANDKERCHIEF.

Fans were not the only accessory supposedly employed in the quest for love; the handkerchief was also rumored as a simple way to send a message across a crowded room. In his marvelous tome The Mystery of Love, Courtship and Marriage Explained (1890), Henry J. Wehman provided a crib sheet for handkerchief flirters:

Drawing across the lips: “Desirous of an acquaintance.”

Twirling in both hands: “Indifference.”

Dropping: “We will be friends.”

Twirling in the left hand: “I wish to be rid of you.”

5. SAY IT WITH FLOWERS.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Perhaps the most famous method of flirting among the Victorians was the language of flowers. A number of guides were published detailing the complexities of the code, in which each bloom held a meaning, and even the color of the ribbon they were tied with and the angle at which they were handed over could hold significance. The Etiquette of Flowers (1852) offered this bafflingly complex piece of advice: “If the flower, or plant, is intended to be preceded by the pronoun I, it must be presented in a position inclined towards the left hand. If it is to express thee or you it should incline to the right.”

Many of the meanings derived from traditional English folklore, but some of the more exotic items were given invented significance by the imaginative Victorian etiquette writers. According to The Etiquette of Flowers, a red rose meant “beauty,” a striped carnation “refusal," a yellow iris “passion,” and, charmingly, the gift of a pineapple meant “keep your promises."

The degree to which Victorians actually used the language of flowers to communicate is debated. In The Language of Flowers: A History, historian Beverly Seaton says that the many books about flower meanings were primarily intended to "entertain a genteel female reader for a few dull afternoons," and there's scant evidence they were used in the day-to-day life of lovers. Nevertheless, the popular association between Victorians, flowers, and romance means a coded bouquet could be just the thing to send to your history-buff paramour.

6. SLIP THEM YOUR CARD.

Flirtation cards, sometimes called escort or acquaintance cards, were cheeky slips of pre-printed paper used by American singles in the late Victorian era to break the ice. They could be direct ("I very much desire to make your acquaintance"), abbreviated (“May I. C. U. Home?”), and even slightly scandalous ("Not Married and Out for A Good Time”). They were often accompanied by illustrations that sometimes spelled out part of the message in rebus code. Most were light-hearted, and parodied the etiquette around the more formal calling cards Victorians used to introduce themselves, announce a visit, express condolences, or note that they had tried to visit someone while they were out. The cards were also another excellent way to avoid chaperones, since an interested party could slip one to their intended relatively discreetly, and the latter could then hide it behind a glove or fan.

7. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, TRY THE CLASSIFIED ADS.

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Newspaper classified ads often provided a safe space for Victorian romance. Dr. Alun Withey, a historian at the University of Exeter, examined the classified ads in the London newspaper the Evening Standard between the 1870s and 1890s and found what he called a “hotbed of sexual tensions”—and some natty nicknames to boot. One example ran: "CAD: utterly miserable and brokenhearted. I must see you my darling. Please write and fix time and place, at all risks. Can pass house if necessary unseen, in close carriage.” Another read: “KITTEN, I hope you are happy. I am most miserable. Do write to our house before Wednesday next; I cannot bear a year. Pray let me see you for old love, which is still stronger.”

These traces of illicit affairs and broken hearts are especially poignant since we often don't know how the story ended; we have no way of knowing if “Kitten” or any other recipient ever read the messages or responded. However, the public nature of these coded messages suggests a level of desperation, and perhaps a last-ditch attempt to rekindle a dying flame, such as in this heartfelt plea: “ALWAYS AT ELEVEN: Dearest, I have obeyed your letter. Have mercy, you are breaking my heart. Never to see you, never hear—save to bid me ‘not come.’ For God’s sake dear love, end this one way or the other. I cannot, cannot bear it. You are too cruel.”

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.