For five consecutive February 14ths, I received close to 30 valentines. My construction paper mailbox burst at the gluesticked seams with heart-emblazoned envelopes, and my heart burst at the pulmonary arteried seams with pride at my teacher-mandated popularity. Back when all of my classcquaintances were required by homeroom regulations to wish me the happiest of Valentines Days, the cardboard notes I received were laden with meaning.
“I’m shell shocked,” Donatello declared on the front of Randy C’s missive, “because you’re mondo to the max!” Jasmine cuddled up to Rajah and told me that I’m “a real tiger of a friend” on behalf of Amanda V. "Havvvveee mercy!" beseeched Mark B., via Uncle Jesse. I spent the rest of the day carefully weighing the implications of these messages. Was Mark saying that he needed a merciful end to his unspoken pining? Or did he actually, you know, want me to have mercy in the 'stop working my moves over cafeteria tater tots' sense? The subtly was too much to handle.
19th Centurians felt my fifth-grade pain: sometimes the written word is just too ambiguous! In 1888, the New York Times published a piece about the "awful possibilities" of a "new system of flirtation" that they had heard was born in Berlin.
"How much of evil is hidden under this apparently innocent device to aid flirtation it is scarcely possible to discover without a careful analysis of the system, which would require much time and patient research," the venerable paper warned, before beginning two pages of research-free fear-mongering. The threat? A fool-proof(ish) coquette's code.
What did this awful, evil system of flirtation entail? Writing valentines in the blood of slaughtered toddlers? Branding the unsuspecting object of affection with a hot iron shaped like a heart? Posting cloying messages on your boyfriend's Facebook wall? The truth was even worse: crooked postage.
"The system is very simple, and is based entirely on the method used in affixing postage stamps to letters," the Times explained. "By means of it a young man, under the cloak of an ordinary business note, may convey to a young woman sentiments of the most tender character, and he may convey sentiments directly the reverse. He may write, for example, ‘Tell your respected father that I am going as a missionary to the interior of Africa,’ and the young lady can show this to her parents and relieve his mind without running the slightest risk of the old gentleman’s discovering what the note says to her in fact. The message to her is in the postage stamp on the envelope. It is affixed in a sidewise position so it puts to her that question so dear to every woman from some man in the world, ‘Do you love me?’" In her response, I assume the girl could then say that her postage response depends on whether the whole missionary thing was just a front or for happening for real.
The possibilities abounded. "If placed on the left-hand corner it says to her urgently, 'write at once,’ and a dozen other variations are employed to express a many different meanings. The apparently dumb and meaningless postage stamp may pledge undying love, convey a direct and passionate proposal of marriage, or declare undying hate to the man or woman who has learned to read its mystic language as constructed by the Berlin flirtation fiend." (I am pretty sure I went on an OkCupid date with BerlinFlirt@ationFiend once, incidentally- nice guy, but he put up a lot of walls).
A New Zealand paper laid out their version of the code in more detail, circa 1890:
Top right-hand corner:
Upright= I desire your friendship
Horizontal= Do you love me?
Upside down= Don't write again
Crooked= Write at once
Bottom right-hand corner:
Upright= Your love makes me happy
Top left-hand corner:
Upright= I love you
Horizontal= My heart is another's
Upside down= Good day, my darling
Bottom left-hand corner:
Upright= Fidelity will be award
Horizontal= Do not leave me alone in my sorrow
Upside down= You have withstood all trials
Next to the name of the addressee:
Upright= Accept my love
Across= I long to see you
Upside down= I am engaged (ouch- hate to hear about this one through postage)
The system seems to have varied from place to place, which probably caused some confusion. Still, this system sounds to me like a pretty good way to get straight to the unspoken point. The Times strongly disagreed:
"It is easy to imagine a venerable old banker sending a polite note to a woman, reminding her that the last quarter’s interest on her mortgage is unpaid, sealing the missive, and slapping on a stamp in such a position that it will be interpreted, under the rules of the flirtation code, ‘Will you marry me, darling?’ If the woman is honest, she will read the note, pay the interest, if she has the money, and end the matter."
All well and good. But what if she has her eye on the...MAIN CHANCE? Funny you should ask:
"If she is designing and has an eye to the ‘main chance,’ she will promptly respond, ‘I have loved you always, make it Sept. 10,’ and when the astonished banker finds himself in court to answer a suit for breach of promise, a copy of this answer, with his flirtation postage stamp, markedExhibit A, will figure as part of the correspondence produced by the plaintiff to establish her claim for marriage or money."
Now that's how you flirtation fiend!
This code got started in 1840's England as a way to send messages on the cheap. At the time, postage was paid by the recipient of a letter, not the sender. To save friends money, senders starting using stamps and small symbols written on the envelope to convey their message on the outside of the mail. That way, their friend could just take a glance and refuse to formally accept (and therefore pay) for the letter. According to historian Roy Nuhn, the code-as-flirtation peaked in popularity in 1890's England.
John Hotcher, former president of the American Philatelic (that means 'study of stamps,' you dummy) Society, has said that the code tends to "resurge during war times or whenever else there are large numbers of people separated from their loved ones." Today, some people still use the code to add a little extra love to mail sent overseas, although postal regulations have cut down on some of the more fanciful placements.
I've got to say, it still sounds more sweet than sinister to me. Perhaps the Times should have saved their alarm for 1918, when they published a piece on a different German postage code. Just a couple decades after the Germans were accused of fleecing the elderly landlords of America, the US government caught spies caught using postage stamp layout to communicate secrets to Germany during WWI. Come on, Germany- havvveee mercy!
"The Code Stamp of Flirtation." New Zealand Observer. 1890.
"German Code Stamp Nipped by Censors." New York Times. 19 February, 1918.
Urbina, Ian. "From Love to Longing to Protest, It's All in the Tilt of the Postage." New York Times. 15 Aug 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/15/national/15stamps.html?pagewanted=1&ei=5090&en=5fd5db52baa751d0&ex=1281758400&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss
"Postage Stamp Flirtation." New York Times. August 27, 1888. http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F40C12F9395413738DDDAE0A94D0405B8884F0D3
“Postage Stamp Language.” The Meriden Daily Journal. 16 May 1906.