Flirting with Props: the Handkerchief

Via a book on nineteenth century dancing, I ran across a marvelous series of lists on the secret language of silent communication using objects that every proper young lady of the Victorian era usually had with her, at least most of the time—namely, handkerchiefs, gloves, fans, and parasols. Of course, this being lists for young Victorian ladies, the secret communications mostly involved flirting. I have no idea how widely this “knowledge” extended, or if indeed it was chiefly a figment of its creator’s imagination.

The lists originated from a book that I am positively itching to get my hands on: Secrets of Life Unveiled, or, Satan in Society by one Daniel R. Shafer. The subtitle is priceless…as is the sub-sub-title: “For Inquirers, Both Old and Young, Male and Female, Single and Married, the Curious and Thoughtful, For Thinkers, Lovers of the Lost Arts, For Believers in the Divine Science of Natural and Celestial Magic, Dreams, Omens, Spells, Charms, Enchantments, Incantations, Etc., Etc. THOUSANDS OF HIDDEN SECRETS For Every One Who Wishes to Probe Beyond the Present Into the Dark and Mysterious Future.”

I mean, with a title like that, who could resist?

The publication date is a bit obscure; it might have been published as early as 1877, or as late as 1890. The table of contents is another hoot: as well as various forms of fortune-telling, there are chapters on phrenology, physiognomy, the signification of marks, moles, and scars, omens, lucky and unlucky days, and use of the divining rod. And then, in a bit of a non-sequitur, there are chapters on the language of flowers, etiquette, secrets of the toilette table, and a lovers’ guide. I’m guessing the section on secret communication via hankies and fans appeared in that last one; if I ever get my hands on a copy, I’ll report back.

In the meanwhile, let’s look at how to communicate via handkerchief. According to Mr. Shafer,
The handkerchief, among lovers, is used in a different manner than its legitimate purpose. The most delicate hints can be given without danger of misunderstanding, and in “flirtations” it becomes a very useful instrument. It is in fact superior to the deaf and dumb alphabet, as the notice of bystanders is not attracted. The following rules are the law on the subject:

Drawing it across the lips: Desiring an acquaintance
Drawing it across the cheek: I love you
Drawing it across the forehead: Look, we are watched
Drawing it through the hands: I hate you
Dropping it: We will be friends
Folding it: I wish to speak with you
Letting it rest on the right cheek: Yes
Letting it rest on the left cheek:
Letting it remain on the eyes:
You are so cruel
Opposite corners in both hands: Do wait for me
Over the shoulder: Follow me
Placing it over the right ear: How you have changed
Putting it in the pocket: No more love at present
Taking it by the center: You are most too willing
Twisting it in the left hand: I wish to be rid of you
Twisting it in the right hand: I love another
Winding it around the forefinger: I am engaged
Winding it around the third finger: I am married

Hmm. I tried to picture just how one placed one’s handkerchief over one’s right ear without looking totally silly, and can’t help thinking a whispered comment in passing might do the trick just as well…but this is, after all, the age of disposable tissues, and maybe a flirtatious young lady of the 19th century could carry it off. The jury’s still out on that one…



About Marissa Doyle

Marissa Doyle originally planned to be an archaeologist but somehow got distracted. At long last, after an unsurprisingly circuitous path, she ended up writing historical fantasy for young adults (the Leland Sisters series) and contemporary fantasy for slightly older ones, most recently By Jove from Book View Cafe. She is obsessed by the Regency period, 19th century stuff in general, and her neurotic pet bunny. Visit her at


Flirting with Props: the Handkerchief — 4 Comments

  1. Hmmmmm. Author is male. Reading through the list of what the all unknowing piece of fabric is capable of telling the male observer one cannot help but think this is that era’s version of “The Ultimate Man’s Pick Up Guide — From Geek to Champ,” or “How To Read Women’s Body Language For Flirting,” or what’s the name of the gross guy who runs seminars on to pick-up women?

    Partly because everything seems so codified and quantified in your author’s book, according to the abstract-type endless sub titles, and the TOC, he seems to be fantasizing like these jerks do, because a woman can’t just touch her hair because you know, HAIR in mouth and eyes, it means she wants to rip your clothes off right now and throw you on the bar.


    • Now I remember! Neil Strauss. The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists. Funny how all these sorts of guides including the 19th C one proclaim these are ‘secrets’ upon which the reader is being appraised.

  2. I was thinking of Bujold’s Betan earrings that signified what kind of availability someone had. But context matters, and a language of availability allows for variability within a party or even within a conversation.

    In science fiction, more technological tools can add to this language.

  3. At first glance it seems to me that the author of this book stole many of those handkerchief signals from books on fan language–which books are already suspect.