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The Victorian's Obsession with Secret Languages

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Did you know the Victorians invented a secret language of the cane and a secret language of the parasol? A gentleman holding cane at the top and bottom was conveying, “Wait for me.” A lady carrying a parasol over her left shoulder was messaging, “You are too cruel.”

These languages, and more, are recorded along with the more commonly-known language of flowers in early Victorian publications. A rose indicates "un-failing love" and a honeysuckle as "devotion," which could be selected to send a secret message meant only for the receiver. Several could be gathered into a tussie-mussie (a bouquet of carefully-selected flowers, each for its specific meaning). Or, a specific flower may be engraved on a headstone, as a lasting communication through time.

Secret Languages of the Victorians

The Victorians weren't just satisfied with three secret languages. They created additional secret-language vocabularies for: the language of the handkerchief, the language of the fan, the language of finger rings, and the language of wedding anniversaries. The Brighton History Detective has uncovered several other secret languages in her sleuthing of yesteryear, mystery, and intrigue. These include the secret meanings behind the gesturing of gloves, positioning of postage stamps, and various colors of silk ribbons that created the language of gloves, language of postage stamps, and language of color. Playing cards and gemstones also "talk" a language of their own.

What was behind the Victorian's fascination with symbology? Was it merely related to the mystery and intrigue of deciphering codes? Cultural symbols have been used throughout time by many different groups, and interpretations vary among them as do their collection of beliefs, traditions, and values. Taking a closer look at a group's symbology, helps bring more clarity to the understanding of the group itself.

Victorian Etiquette

To understand the Victorians' attention to secret languages, it is helpful to look at the difference in day-to-day communication from today's modern practices. Strict rules of etiquette governed communication and conduct between a Victorian lady and a gentleman. These rules were directed in explicit detail within volumes of comprehensive guides of the day, such as: Our Deportment; Manners, Conduct and Dress of the Most Refined Society by John H. Young (1881) and Cassell's household guide to every department of practical life: being a complete encyclopedia of domestic and social economy, Volume 1 and Volume 2. Each book provided full directions for correct manners, dress, and decorum (appropriate behavior and conduct) on a multitude of various matters. The subjects ranged from household management and hostessing to proper communications of visiting and letter writing. Also covered were strict guidelines of proper wardrobe selections for specific occasions and personal grooming, as well as a myriad of strict rules for various other subjects of proper conduct.

The rules of etiquette went beyond being polite and considerate, the common root of rules of decorum for both Victorian and modern times. For the Victorian, etiquette determined inclusion or exclusion in society. Social class, along with its privileges and prejudices, was severely more pronounced and controlling to one's well-being in the 19th century. Sheridan Brown is an expert in Victorian traditions from Denver's Molly Brown House Museum. She explains that a woman's commitment to ensuring her family practices proper etiquette rules went beyond social standing. It was strongly driven by her faith in and dedication to honor God.

Communication between a young unmarried lady and a gentleman was governed by strict rules of etiquette. A chaperone was required to be at the side of the lady all times, watching and listening to every word. A Gentleman could not just approach a lady to talk to her. He first needed a formal introduction. And, of course, the young lady never initiated a conversation or approached a gentleman.

One could definitely not just say anything he or she felt and one gave a precisely concentrated effort to verbal communications. Vocally rejecting a suitor was deplorable, just as open flirting was considered appalling. What then, was a woman to do when faced with numerous men vying for her attention in the ballroom? Her true expression to a choice of dance partners was blocked. So, signaling with a "secret language," such as a discreet gesture of a fan, known as Fanology, provided a welcome way to communicate dancing-partner (and ultimately, suitor) preferences.

The Victorian Dance Card

Let's take a closer look inside a formal ball, an event prominently hosted for the purpose of matching eligible bachelors and ladies for courtship (which served as a direct path to marriage). The invitation to dance was extended by the gentleman and a lady was never to refuse without a valid reason. To plead fatigue, was considered insulting. There were few valid reasons, such as her dance card was full or (rarely) she wasn't skilled at the particular type of dance remaining on her card. There was no pretending or acceptance for a "little" lie, either. If she refused a gentleman for a particular dance number, she could not then dance it with another. Additionally, she could not change her mind after entering a gentleman's name on her dance card. Cassell’s Household Guide instructed, "A promise to dance, once made, was sacred, and should not on any account be broken.” It was also considered improper to dance too many dances with the same partner. Decorum dictated, "A lady must not dance more than three dances with the same gentleman."

It is easy to understand — that as bizarre these guidelines sound the root intent of each rule was meant to extend consideration of another's feelings. Still, it is a stifling realization that without the ability to communicate her preferences of dance partners, which most times led to courtship, a young lady would not be able express her true feelings for identifying a marriage partner.

So, perhaps the Victorian's fascination with secret languages, such as that of the fan or the handkerchief, were more than just a obsession with mystery and intrigue. These creative messaging techniques offered a silent way to communicate within the strict rules of etiquette. Secret love languages gave the young lady more participation in choice. The silent coding also provided clues to the gentleman of the lady's feelings, providing him encouragement or helping him to avoid possible entanglement with an unenthusiastic partner.


Author Robin Kring aka "The Brighton History Detective" is a local historian, Victoriana enthusiast, and an author of 7 books and 100+ magazine articles. She enjoys "sleuthing" stories of yesteryear, mystery, and intrigue and is a frequent presenter of such engaging and complimentary topics to groups and organizations. Visit the Clear Creek Publishing AUTHOR TALKS PAGE at for more information.


Practice a Secret Victorian Language with our FREE copy of "LANGUAGE OF THE OF THE PARASOL" vocabulary list. Use our CONTACT FORM on our Clear Creek Publishing HOME PAGE to request your electronic copy. (Please allow up to three days for delivery.) Please ensure each field is completed in full to help enable expediting the request for your complimentary PDF file.


Visit us at Clear Creek Publishing to see our full selection of Digital and Print Publications of Yesteryear, Mystery and Intrigue. Our unique titles flow through a winding passage of creativity to include several topic lines: Special Events, Marketing, Colorado History, Victoriana, and Speculative Fiction.


Please reference our Clear Creek Publishing PUBLICATIONS PAGE at for books by Robin Kring. Her book, Happy Anniversary! was inspired by the Victorian love language of wedding anniversaries and contains fun and romantic celebrations based on the traditional and modern anniversary symbolism.

Another of her titles, A Stroll through Elmwood includes a special "Tombstone Tourist Guide" for identifying hidden messages, based on the Victorian secret language of flowers and other cemetery art symbology.

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