Mental Floss columnist A.J. Jacobs has written a fascinating book called The Puzzler that will be released on April 26, 2022. The book is an exploration of the history, science, and joy of all kinds of puzzles, from crosswords to jigsaws to the meaning of life. In anticipation of publication, Mental Floss is offering some historical tidbits inspired by the book. Here’s the second installment, on Victorian dating puzzles.
Dating in the age of Tinder and catfishing may seem bewildering. But in Victorian England, romance was a literal puzzle. Here are three ways that 19th-century singles pitched woo.
1. Newspaper Love Ciphers
The 19th-century version of sexting was to place encoded classified ads in the newspapers. Today, these ads are compelling and voyeuristic reads.
Some are like heartbreaking short stories, such as this deciphered one from 1869:
“Papa has arrived. Knows all. I refused your name. Fearful scene. Proposed. Accepted. Should we ever meet, ‘Remember,’ utter strangers. Don’t write, unsafe. Pity and forget me. Farewell forever.— Greenwich.”
Or this one, from 1856:
“I have the most beautiful horse in England, but not the most beautiful lady. Your silence pains me deeply. I cannot forget you.— M”
Here are two newspaper love ciphers—the first from 1886, the second from 1866—for you to decode; solutions are at the bottom of this piece.
B. to M.N.—Tn dvcr trw rhtn yltcfrp drtln yln srsd t s uy dn trw t uy.
15 22 7, 14 22, 8 22 13 23, 24 12 9 9 22 8 11 12 13 23 22 13 24 22, 4 18 7 19 , 9 22 24 7 12 9, 12 21, 24 12 15 15 22 20 22, 18 7, 4 18 15 15, 22 3 11 15 26 18 13, 19 12 4, 7 19 18 13 20 8, 8 7 26 13 23, 18, 20 12, 26 25 9 12 26 23,13 22 3 7, 14 12 13 7 19
You can read many more in the book The Agony Column Codes & Ciphers by Jean Palmer.
2. Acrostic Rings
Another way men secretly declared their love was by giving their crush a ring with coded gemstones. Acrostic rings—whose fans reportedly included Napoleon and Marie Antoinette—were a type of jewelry in which the gemstones spelled out a love message. If you take the first letter of each stone and put them together, you get a pet name.
For example, this ring contains seven stones—diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire, and tourmaline—spelling out "dearest." Thanks to some jewelers, you can still put a secret message in acrostic jewelry today.
3. Calling Card Rebuses
We’ve covered how rebuses—a type of puzzle combining words and pictures—were used in contests during the Great Depression, but the puzzles were popular well before that. During the Victorian Era, British gentlemen had pre-printed cards with their favorite pickup lines, and often, they were in the form of a rebus.
Here’s one that, when decoded, reads “May I See You Home My Dear?”
And here’s a more complicated one to try to solve yourself; the solution can be found below.
For more history and puzzles like these, check out A.J. Jacobs’s upcoming book The Puzzler, out from Crown Publishing on April 26, 2022. You can pre-order here. Copyright A.J. Jacobs. All rights reserved.
Newspaper Cipher #1's Answer: The secret is that the cipher omits vowels and spells the words backwards. So the message is (something like): “Not Received. Write another, perfectly unaltered. Only desirous to see you. Need write to you.”
Newspaper Cipher #2's Answer: Each letter is signified by a number, with A as 26, B as 25, and so on, all the way down to Z as 1.
So the decoded message is: “LET ME SEND CORRESPONDENCE WITH RECTOR OF COLLEGE IT WILL EXPLAIN HOW THINGS STAND I GO ABROAD NEXT MONTH.”
Calling Card Rebus's Answer: The first symbols are fairly self-explanatory; they read “Eye M Uriah E. Heckert.” Then there's a W intertwined with a hoe, a T followed by a man, the letter R, and, finally, a yew tree. When fully decoded, the card reads, “I am Uriah Heckert. Who the devil are you?”