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 ...
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.
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.
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.”