Curator Joanna explores how Victorians communicated their secret messages.

Using stamps, coloured paper and flowers, Victorians found ways to communicate secret messages through the post, without writing a single word.

Language of Stamps

To send a bonus hidden message via the publicly readable postcard, Victorians developed the ‘Language of Stamps’, angling postage stamps in different locations, and by different degrees, to convey a secret message. Keys to crack these codes were numerous and with potentially different meanings to each angle, so using the same code key was vital to understanding.

Language of Stamps Postcard (2005-0082/73)

It’s often difficult to tell if people were intentionally using the ‘Language of Stamps’ or if they were being playful with their postage, however, The Postal Museum’s collection includes several examples where it seems highly likely the sender was using the secret stamp code. One such example was sent to Miss Robinson at Westbury Avenue, Wood Green, Somersham. The card is undated, though it’s estimated to date from around 1910. The postcard’s message reads:

“Dear Sister

I hope you are quite well, tell Mum I will write to her later, the hat fit me, I wore it this afternoon. What do Dad think of the new time Grandfather think it is very good. With love”

 

‘The Lady Postman’ postcard, 1910-1935 (2007-0009)

Reverse of ‘The Lady Postman’ postcard showing a stamp put at an angle, 1910-1935 (2007-0009)

Using the ‘Language of Stamps’ key above, the sender has included the secret message: ‘I am faithful to you’.

Mourning Stationery

Alongside the growing commodities available in the 19th century grew a material culture of mourning, where personal grief was symbolically communicated publicly. Victorian women purchased post-mortem photographs, jewellery, mourning handkerchiefs, memorial music, mourning rings and many other commodities manufactured for the bereavement market.

Another example of mourning paraphernalia, used by both Victorian men and women, is mourning stationery. Mourning stationery consists of black-bordered paper and envelopes, used by people following the death of a family member. The dark edges immediately signalled to the recipient the mourning status of the sender.

The Postal Museum’s collection includes several examples of mourning stationery, including a letter addressed to ‘Charles Palmer Esq.’ at ‘Rahin, Clonard, Ireland’. The broken seal is made of black wax, again the colour of mourning, and features an image of a coronet and an ‘H’, for Harberton. The letter was sent from Henry Pomeroy, 2nd Viscount Harberton, an Anglo-Irish politician, on 28 March 1804.

Pomeroy Letter with black mourning border, 1804 (OB1996.404/8)

Harberton wrote:

“I was extremely concerned as well as Lady Harberton to hear of… you having been so much indisposed, & shall be anxious to hear of your perfect recovery which from the approaching mild season I look for with confidence. I joined Lady Harberton… on the 18th… We are both better for having left Brighton… We must look to time and to Good Providence to soften our severe affliction.”

 

The ‘affliction’ Harberton wrote of was the recent death of his 15-year-old son, Henry Pomeroy, who had been buried in the cloister of Westminster Abbey on the 19 March 1804, nine days before Harberton wrote this letter. A monument for Henry Pomeroy, is still visible at Westminster Abbey, hung on the wall of the south cloister.

The inscription reads:

“Near this place lies interred the body of the Honble. Henry Pomeroy only son of the Viscount and Viscountess Harberton, who died at Brighthelmstone [now called Brighton] in the county of Sussex on the 10th day of March 1804 and in the 15th year of his age, of a long and painful illness which he sustained with the utmost resignation, fortitude and piety. In memory of his duty and affection to them and of the many amiable qualities which endeared him to his friends and to all who knew him this monument of their love is erected by his disconsolate parents”.

 

Mourning stationery was not exclusive to Great Britain and was also widely used in the United States of America. In 1897, country music singer Hattie Nevada wrote ‘The Letter Edged in Black’, a song which has since been covered over 20 times. The song tells the story of a carefree day interrupted by the arrival of the postman, carrying a black-edged envelope.

“I was standin’ by my window yesterday morning
Without a thought of sorrow or of care
When I saw the postman comin’ up the pathway
With such a smiling face and jolly air.

He rang the bell and whistled as he waited
Then he said; “Good morning to you, Jack”
But he little knew the sorrow that he brought me
When he handed me a letter edged in black.

With trembling hands I took the letter from him
I open it and sifted what it said:
“Come home my boy, your dear old daddy wants you
Come home my boy, your dear old mother’s dead.”

 

Language of Flowers

Floriography, the language of flowers, a tradition spanning thousands of years, boomed in the Victorian period. Flowers held specific symbolic meaning in Victorian society and one way these meanings were shared and spread through printed postcards.

Embossed postcard titled ‘The Language of Flowers’ (Ref: 2003.413) © Garden Museum

Flowers were also symbolically printed on writing paper. One example of this is in the series of letters written by Robert Abbott to his sweetheart, Mary, in the mid-19th century. His letters discuss his daily activities and at first appear quite unromantic. However, the floral writing paper, adorned with hand-painted rosebuds and forget-me-nots, reveals a coded romantic message, read and understood widely in Victorian society. The format of the letter allowed for further romantic sentiment. Robert’s letters are addressed to ‘to my beloved Mary’, and signed ‘yours in unalterable love’.

Love letter by Robert Abbott, 6 Aug 1847, (OB1995.441/4)

Love letter by Robert Abbott, 3 Aug 1847, (OB1995.441/3)

Modern florists encourage today’s consumer to re-visit the language of flowers and add extra meaning to gifted bouquets such as Bloom & Wild with their handy guide to Modern Floriography.

All of these codes rely on the recipient being fluent in the secret language – otherwise the stamp is just at a funny angle, the writing paper has an interesting coloured edge, a flower is just a flower.

Language of Fans

One of the most complicated secret codes in the Victorian period was the language of the fan, where ladies would move their fans in various ways to articulate meanings ranging from ‘kiss me’ to ‘I wish to get rid of you.’

A young loving couple sit on a sofa holding hands while she coyly holds a fan up to her face. Coloured wood engraving after Rud. Rössler, 1894 © Wellcome Collection

However, there is evidence that the language was little used in reality and was launched to increase fan sales, as it was designed by a fan manufacturer who, after great success, went on to supply Queen Victoria.

Duvellroy’s “The Language of The Fan” source sothebys.com

Now that you’ve seen the ways of keeping in touch in secret, will you take inspiration from Victorians?

– Joanna Espin, Curator


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