In the dark ages before texting, Victorians used texting-like shorthand on a surprising variety of publications. I first encountered this practice on a poster advertising the Needham Congregational Church’s 1891 Strawberry Festival. Since then I’ve been noticing it nearly every time I read anything about Victorian-era paraphernalia. The latest example is this recent National Geographic article about escort cards.
In Victorian times, single young women of good breeding and marriageable age were invariably surrounded by a steel ring of corseted chaperones. If a young man wanted an introduction, he first had to convince the matron in charge of his intended that he was a good financial and familial bet. If either his breeding or his checkbook weren’t up to snuff, the chaperone would refuse to make the introduction.
Still, as every generation has, young lovers invariably found ways around this strict social code. Since we’re talking about Victorians here, I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised to discover that there was a proper protocol for bypassing the proper introduction protocol.
Potential suitors would slip an escort card into the hand of a woman — or man — they wished to meet, but whose chaperone couldn’t be trusted to make the proper introductions. The recipient would either scribble a response of her own on the suitor’s card before returning it, or hand over a preprinted escort card with her reply.
From the article:
“Escort cards became popular in the late 19th century—a time when many women couldn’t go out without a chaperone watching their behavior, says Barbara Rusch, an expert in and collector of Victorian ephemera. To bypass the strict social rules of the day, Rusch says a man would surreptitiously slip an escort card to a woman he fancied, who might hide it ‘inside her glove or behind a fan.'”
These escort cards were most often given by men to young unmarried women, a predictably concerning situation for the chaperones charged with overseeing the virtue of those unmarried women. But on occasion, a woman might slip one to a man — or woman — she wanted to know better.
- Saucy Escort Cards Were a Way to Flirt in the Victorian Era (National Geographic)