Handkerchiefs and Flirting Language

Flirting or coquetry remained an art form throughout the Georgian, Regency, and Victorian Eras. In the late 1700s, Georgian attitudes about flirting were extreme as noted by The Nunnery for Coquettes published in 1771 that stated:

“Coquetry is a vice so prevalent and fashionable in the female world, that it calls aloud for public censure; and the fatal consequences of it to both sexes are so great and numerous, that they cannot be too strongly displayed.”[1]

handkerchiefs and flirting language

Love at First Sight. Author’s collection.

Although society’s view of the coquette relaxed somewhat by the late 1800s, an expectation remained that sincerity of intention should accompany flirting. The book Etiquette published in 1892, demonstrates this:

“The interchange of bright ideas, interspersed with the instinctive repartee of innocent coquetry — an archery of wit and humor, grave and gay, — this is one of the salient features of civilized social life. It has nothing in common with the shallow travesty of sentiment that characterizes a pointless flirtation. The latter is bad form whenever and wherever existing.”[2]

This is opposite of the Puck cartoon shown above with love at first sight because it mocks royalty who married for money rather than for love.

Whether it was the 1700 or 1800s, a woman could not flirt openly or explicitly because of social restrictions and cultural norms. Ritualized behavior was in force when a woman was interested in pursuing a loving relationship because society disapproved of overt sexual advances. This forced flirting women, sometimes called coquettes, to flirt discretely and one of their best tools when flirting was using non-verbal communication. For coquettes to make their interest or disinterest known to the opposite sex, besides demure batting of the eyelashes, come-hither smiles, and tosses of the hair and head, they also relied on subtle signals to telegraph their feeling and intentions. Often these signals relied on a woman’s accessories, and one powerful tool in a woman’s arsenal was her handkerchief.

Afternoon Toilet, Author's Collection

Afternoon toilet with handkerchief. Author’s collection.

During the middle ages a kerchief was used as a head covering, but when Europeans began to use them to wipe their runny noses or sweaty foreheads, they were distinguished from the head covering kerchiefs by being called “hand-kerchiefs.” The word hand-kerchief first appeared in print in the 1530s, and the handkerchief once named quickly gained in popularity. For instance, during the time of Queen Elizabeth I, handkerchiefs were often presented as gifts between women. This gifting among women was done in part to avoid any sign of impropriety as “handkerchiefs were the customary messengers of Cupid.”[3] However, Elizabeth I loved handkerchiefs and gave as many to women as she received, and it was during her reign that the handkerchief reached its pinnacle.

Queen Elizabeth, Author's Collection

Queen Elizabeth. Author’s collection.

In 1604, the idea of handkerchiefs and love was introduced and described in Friar Bacon’s Prophesie: “Handkerchers [sic] were wrought with names and true love knots.”[4] This association of love and handkerchiefs can best be described in a short story about Elizabeth I. One day, she was watching two influential courtiers playing tennis when one of them snatched her handkerchief and wiped his sweaty face. The second man became so incensed he claimed the first was “too saucy” and a fight ensued. Although we might think this ridiculous, these often sweetly scented wonders were tokens of affection and both men and women saw the handkerchief as a representation of love, which is why the second man was driven to jealousy.

John Stowe’s Chronicles provides a description of the sixteenth and seventeenth small, ornate, and sweetly scented handkerchief presented verbatim:

“It was the custome for maydes and gentlewomen to give their favourites, as tokens of their love, little Handkerchiefs, of about three or four inches square…with a button or tassel at each corner, and a little one in the middle, with silke and threed; the best edged with a small gold, lace, or twist, which being doubled up in foure crosse foldes, so as the middle might be seene, gentlemen and others did usually wear them in their hattes, as favours of their loves and mistresses.”[5]

Under the right circumstances, gestures with a handkerchief could also easily be considered a marital contract, but exactly how handkerchiefs came to be used as flirtation signals is unclear. Handkerchief gestures at court may have been used to signal intentions, and, although unwritten, they may have become well understood love gestures over time. People outside of court likely wanted to imitate royals and latched onto this practice of handkerchief signalling, so that by the end of the 1800s, it was an accepted custom for any woman to signal her intentions with a handkerchief.

The Handkerchief of the 1800s, Author's Collection

The handkerchief of the 1800. Author’s collection.

In the late 1800s, Daniel R. Shafer wrote about the handkerchief and its ability to signal feelings.

“The handkerchief, among lovers, is used in a different manner than its legitimate purpose. The most delicate hints can be given without danger of misunderstanding, and in ‘flirtations’ it becomes a very useful instrument. It is in fact superior to the deaf and dumb alphabet, as the notice of bystanders is not attracted.”[6]

Mrs. Bayham Badger with Her Handkerchief, Public Domain

Mrs. Bayham Badger with her handkerchief. Public domain.

Apparently, however, no matter how useful it was to signal a woman’s intentions, it was not appropriate to signal your intentions everywhere. The Journal of the Telegraph claimed:

“It must be remember … that the ‘code’ is only to be used at balls, parties, theatres, and on the street, but never in church.”[7]

Handkerchief flirting of the 1800s involved the following signals:

  • Drawing it across the cheek — I love you.
  • Drawing it across the eyes — I am sorry.
  • Drawing it across the forehead — Look, we are watched.
  • Drawing it through the hands — I hate you.
  • Drawing it across the lips — Desiring an acquaintance.
  • Dropping it — We will be friends.
  • Folding it — I wish to speak with you.
  • Letting it rest on the left cheek — No.
  • Letting it rest on the right cheek — Yes.
  • Letting it remain on the eyes — You are so cruel.
  • Opposite corners in both hands — Do wait for me.
  • Over the shoulder — Follow me.
  • Placing it over the right ear — How you have changed.
  • Putting it in the pocket — No more love at present.
  • Taking it by the center — You are most too willing.
  • Twisting it in the left hand — I wish to be rid of you.
  • Twisting it in the right hand — I love another.
  • Winding it around the forefinger — I am engaged.
  • Winding it around the third finger — I am married.


  • [1] The Nunnery for Coquettes, 1771, p. v.
  • [2] Morton, Agnes H., Etiquette, 1892, p. 201.
  • [3] Carroll, Mitchell, etal., Woman in All Ages and in All Countries, 1908, p. 242.
  • [4] Earle, Alice Morse, Two Centuries of Costume in America, Vol. 1, 1903, p. 379.
  • [5] Stowe, John, Chronicles.
  • [6] Shafer, Daniel R,. Secrets of Life Unveiled, 1877, p. 231.
  • [7] Journal of the Telegraph, Volumes 1 and 2, 1869, p. 45

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