I found this story on the Edwardian Promenade blog here.
The Victorian era was a time when respectable men and women were never left alone together and any courting was strictly chaperoned, to the point where a young woman and man could maaaaaybe sit alone in a parlor together if they were lucky, but only provided that the door was open (if they closed the door, even for 10 seconds, she would become a ruined woman because WHO KNOWS WHAT SEXY THINGS HAD HAPPENED IN THAT INTERVAL???)
Anyway, young people in the 1880s began to develop flirtatious codes and signals for each other, likely because decorum was breaking down slightly (suffragettes! bicycles! women working! women going to college! the Prince of Wales making good times fashionable again, while Victoria's boring old court was in perpetual mourning!).
Despite all of this, there was still a great deal couples weren't allowed to do, so they took their new-found freedom and frankness and created a language all their own, hidden from their parents (at least, so they thought). On the surface, they were still well-behaving, but they were making their intentions to each other perfectly clear in a sub-culture of unprecedented forwardness. There were tips in all sorts of magazines directed at young people about how to flirt correctly.
"The young man who pulls his hat low on the forehead informs his beloved that he loves her madly. When he tips it over his eyes she must not recognise him. When he pushes it to the back of his head he bids her adieu. Taking the hat off and brushing it the wrong way expresses his despair, carrying a stone in it tells of the fair one’s cruelty, and putting it on the ground implies farewell for ever. If the young lady uses her hat as a fan, she bids her lover come and see her guardian, while throwing it across the street signifies she is engaged."
Question: who the hell is actually going to throw her hat across a street to tell someone she's engaged? That seems like way more effort than just saying, "Sorry, my dear Charles, I've accepted Mr. Buckleberry's proposal". (That's what Victorian names sound like to me, btw.)
Second Question: Does the guy carry a stone around in his hat at all times, in case he runs into his beloved? Does it have to be a big stone? How would she even see it, if he is supposed to keep his head covered in public? Is it ON his hat (on the top or the brim) or IN it, resting on his head? This seems like a lot of effort. "Darling Clemency might be at the church fete today. Guess I better carry this rock around on my head. Oh, she's not here? I guess I'll just set it down . . . wait, why are all the women around me now sobbing and saying goodbye?"
I'm just saying that if the whole point of these acts was to communicate secretly to each other when tons of other people were around–but everyone knew the coded language–then everyone would know what you were saying to each other, more so than if you just stole a couple of whispered words. Also, what if someone thought your message was for them, and it wasn't? This is a wacky rom-com waiting to happen . . .
"When a gentleman carries his umbrella grasped by the middle with the handle pointing backward he is making a declaration of love to all women whom he encounters. He may be utterly unconscious of the fact, but any one who understands the leading signals of the “umbrella flirtation” will know what is meant when a gentleman deliberately holds his umbrella in that position. Furthermore, if he carried his umbrella handle forward and inclined at forty-five degrees it would mean 'We must part.'"
I JUST WANT TO HAVE AN UMBRELLA WITH ME. THIS IS ENGLAND. IT'S GOING TO RAIN. TELL ME HOW I SHOULD HOLD IT!
Postage Stamp flirtation
"Some ingenious persons have given a meaning to the location of a postage-stamp on a letter. For example, they say that when a stamp is inverted on the right hand upper corner it means the person written to is to write no more. If the stamp be placed on the left hand upper corner and inverted, then the writer declares his affection for the receiver of the letter. When the stamp is in the centre at the top, it signifies an affirmative answer to a question, or the question, as the case may be; and when it is at the bottom, or opposite this, it is a negative. Should the stamp be on the right hand corner, at a right angle, it asks the question if the receiver of the letter loves the sender; while in the left hand corner moans that the writer hates the other. There is a shade of difference between desiring one’s acquaintance and friendship—for example: The stamp at the upper corner on the right expresses the former, and on the lower left hand corner means the latter. The learned in this language request their correspondents to accept their love by placing the stamp on a line with the surname, and the response is made, if the party addressed be engaged, by placing the stamp in the same place but reversing it. The writer may wish to say farewell to his sweetheart, or vice versa, and does so by placing the stamp straight up and down in the left hand corner."
I JUST WANT TO MAIL THIS BIRTHDAY CARD TO GRANDMA. WHERE THE HELL DO I PUT THE STAMP?
"When a lady passes a handkerchief across her face this is a signal to the gentleman friend, standing in front of the cigar store, that she must speak with him soon."
Wait, does this only work if a gentleman is in front of a cigar store? What an odd detail.
"If a young man is too bashful or too diplomatic to make a frank declaration of love all he has to do is to “crumple the dance programme in his left hand,” and the young woman who has studied the yellow volume will know that he means 'I can not live without you.'"
Or he just likes crumpling things. It's really satisfying.
I can't believe they didn't have a section on fan flirtation–the flirtiest of all flirtations. There used to be a whole form of etiquette in how a fan was held, where it was held, how it was fluttered, etc. I know this definitely was in vogue in the 18th- and early 19th-century, but I don't know how it evolved towards the end. Anyone who can help me out on this wins a prize! (I don't really have a prize)