Flirting has been done since Eve enticed Adam with the apple. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary associated flirting with a lack of seriousness and attributed its origins to “conter fleurette,” an old French word that means to try to seduce by dropping flower petals. This is interesting as flowers were, and still are, given as a symbol of a person’s feelings and intentions. For instance, according to the book The Poetry of Flowers and Flowers of Poetry, a gift of white roses symbolizes “a heart ignorant of love,” coreopsis meant “love at first sight,” and Forget-me-nots indicated “true love.”
Just as certain flowers provided insight into a man’s intentions, a woman of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was also able to signal her feelings using her gloves.
Exactly how glove flirtation signals or codes occurred is unclear, but as early as Medieval times a woman or a man could attract a mate with nothing more than sweet scented gloves. Gloves were in vogue during Henry VIII’s time and there are records noting the glove’s presence when quarterly inventories were taken:
“Spanysshe [sic] gloves,” “a pair of swet (sweet-perfumed) gloves,” and “a peire [sic] of gloves perfumed and cuffed with gold and silver.”
Queen Elizabeth I also received scented gloves, which was noted by Beck: “Three Italians came unto the queen and presented her eache [sic] of them a payre [sic] of sweet gloves.” By the mid 1600s perfumed gloves were almost universally worn, and by the time Beck wrote his book in 1883, he claimed gloves were still being scented and that people have “within the present century … worn them scented with myrtle.”
Women first began to wear gloves as a fashion accessory in the 13th century, despite many people viewing them as a display of vanity. These gloves were made from linen and silk and reached to the elbow.
Sometime in the 1600s, gloves known as “chicken-skin gloves” became popular and were worn by both sexes. They were made of “thin, strong leather … dressed with almonds and spermaceti [a white waxy substance produced by sperm whales], and … the softening, balmy nature [of them] soften[ed], clear[ed], smooth[ed], and [made] white the hands and arms.” Some people liked these chicken gloves so much they occasionally slept in them to ‘bleach the[ir] hands’ properly.” Because of their name you might think the gloves were made from chicken skin, but German women gave them the name because of “their innocent, effectual quality,” and if the gloves were made from chicken skin at all, it didn’t last long as they were quickly superseded by other materials, such as the skin of unborn calves.
No matter what the chicken gloves were made from, it wasn’t easy to flirt if you were a woman living in the 1700 and 1800s. You could not be overt with your intentions. Being overt in your feelings towards a man would have been the height of rudeness and impropriety. That is partly why flirting signals or codes developed. Signals or codes could subtly show a woman’s true feelings and save a man from guessing how a woman felt. In Agnes H. Morton’s book of 1909, she claimed:
“Few things are more vulgar than the readiness to infer a flirtation from every case of marked mutual interest between a man and woman … A woman may accept every tribute that a chivalrous man may offer to her talent or wit, so long as it is expressed in a hearty spirit of good comradeship, and with a clear and unmistakable deference to her self-respecting dignity.”
One way for a woman to maintain her dignity was to use the glove code associated with flirting, despite The Nunnery for Coquettes book that claimed such codes might be a woman’s ruin. By the mid and late 1800s, several books were published providing specific signals to use when wearing or carrying gloves. These signals included the following:
- Biting the tips—I wish to be rid of you very soon.
- Clenching them (rolled up) in right hand—No.
- Drawing halfway on the left hand—Indifference.
- Dropping both of them—I love you.
- Dropping one of them—Yes.
- Putting end of tips to lips—Do you love me?
- Folding up carefully—Get rid of your company.
- Holding in left hand with the naked thumb exposed—Do you love me.
- Holding in right hand with the naked thumb exposed—Kiss me.
- Holding with tips downward—I wish to be acquainted.
- Holding them loose in the left hand—Be contented.
- Holding them loose in the right hand—I am satisfied.
- Putting them away—I am vexed.
- Smoothing them out gently—I wish I was with you.
- Striking them over the hand—I am displeased.
- Striking them over the shoulder—Follow me.
- Tapping the chin—I love another.
- Tossing them gently—I am engaged.
- Turning them inside out—I hate you.
- Twirling around the fingers—Be careful! We are watched.
- Using them as a fan—Introduce me to your company.
-  Osgood, Frances Sargent Locke, The Poetry of Flower and Flowers of Poetry, 1841
-  Beck, S. William, Gloves, Their Annals and Association, 1883, p. 84.
-  Ibid., p. 90.
-  Ibid., p. 94.
-  Fairholt, Frederick William, Costume in England, 1896, p. 192.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Morton, Agnes H., Etiquette: Good Manners for All People, Especially for Those “Who Dwell within the Board Zone of the Average,” 1909, p. 201.