On Victorian Cards for Secret Flirtations
19th-century flirtation relied on very specific techniques, a secret language, and rules, all preserved today in these tiny trading cards...
Within the art of seduction, nothing is more provocative than secrecy. Victorian England knew this and relied on a custom of discreetly exchanging cards bearing private messages between interested parties. The practice might seem naïve today, but at the time it involved an intricate system of communication codes which obeyed the rules of decorum in an era of sexual repression abundant with strange, even comical myths about sexuality. The secret language has its contemporary counterparts, but the paraphernalia and history are nevertheless still captivating.
The England of the latter half of the 19th century, the Victorian Era, saw respectable single women unable to leave home without a chaperone or a companion to oversee their behavior. For this reason, discretion was difficult and gentlemen had to resort to “tricks” to get away with flirting. Among the most charming of these tricks were the small cards then known as flirtations. These were printed cards, often decorated with great care. Of the many types, they usually made specific requests, such as for permission to visit the lady’s house or to escort her home.
Some cards also bore the name and portrait of the sender. These became known as calling cards, as they introduced the gentleman to the chosen lady, announced an upcoming visit, or invited the lady for a visit or announced that an unfulfilled visit had been made. Similar cards were used to express condolences for a death or for congratulations.
Perhaps the most charming were those which, not without a hint of humor, included a manual (summarized on the small card) with codes for an exchange of secret messages in public. Such codes were made through body motions, a secret mode of communications.
At times, the sign language made use of objects like books, umbrellas, pencils, hats, handkerchiefs, or even the eyes. A book held in the lap meant, “you may talk to me.” But the left cheek resting on the book meant, “we’re being watched.” Dropping the book invited a conversation, but these are but a few examples. Experts don’t actually know just how practical such sign language may have been, or if the codes were ever actually used. Some argue that the cards were more tools for the starting of a conversation or to break the ice.
In the United States, especially during the second half of the 19th-century, escort or acquaintance cards were similarly used. These included a compliment and were normally left discreetly inside the lady’s handbag. At a cost of ten for a dollar, they took the language even further, but they served exactly the same purpose as their English predecessors.
The codes of these cards (amorous messages on very small pieces of paper) were expressions of a specific sentimentality, and they speak of the many social codes surrounding flirtation. Even more, though, they remind us of the power of secrecy within the ancient practice of seduction. Today, social networks have taken over this role in our own lives, but the Victorian cards are that much more charming, not only because of the labor involved in their production, but for all the effort entailed in putting them to use.
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