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 ...

A young Victorian woman with a fan
iStock

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.

A courting Victorian couple fawning over each other
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.

A Victorian woman reading a newspaper in the kitchen
iStock

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.”

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.