Escort Cards – Victorian Tinder?

Imagine you’re in your twenties, unmarried, and you see someone you’re attracted to in your local ice cream parlor. You’re alone and you’d really like to introduce yourself. Sounds simple enough, but if you lived during the 18th or 19th centuries you’d face a mountain of objections.

For one, if you were a young woman you probably wouldn’t have been in the ice cream parlor by yourself in the first place. Young, unmarried women under the age of 30 were never supposed to be out and about, and certainly not alone with a young man, without either a family member, a servant or a chaperone (usually a much older woman) for company.

Likewise, a young man couldn’t approach a young woman he fancied without going through an appropriate intermediary, like the girl’s parents, her guardian or, once again, a chaperone.

But the mating urge in any era is strong. So, how did our ancestors work around the constraints of their rigid social conventions?

Some of them may have resorted to escort cards. These nifty, postcard-sized notes fit handily into a pocket or a handbag and could be easily passed on. They were a convenient way to get around rigid social restrictions if you wanted to to talk to someone without going through a formal introduction or the intervention of a chaperone.

I recently came across a gem of a book filled with reproductions of authentic 19th century escort cards, May I See You Home: 19th Century Pickups for 21st Century Suitors by Alan Mays (see sources below). It was an eye-opener. When it came to pick-up lines, some of our Victorian forebears didn’t pull any punches.

The cards can be grouped into categories. There are business-like messages, no doubt from serious-minded young men, complete with fill-in-the-blanks:

“May I have the pleasure of your company to attend a ……… to be held at …..on of …..188- at ….o’clock …M. If so, please sign your name on the back of this card and return it to me.”

Who could resist such honeyed words?

For the romantics there were cards with flowery sentiments:

“Your coral lips were made to kiss, I stoutly will maintain; and dare you say, my lovely miss, that aught was made in vain?”

And poetic pleas:

“May I be permitted the blissful pleasure of escorting you home this evening?” – a message somewhat undercut by the illustration showing two frogs walking arm-in-arm through a swamp.

Some messages verged on pathetic:

“May I have the pleasure of escorting you home this evening? If so, keep this card. If not, may I please sit on the fence and see you go by?”

Some cards featured a rebus, a combination of pictures and letters, not unlike some of today’s text messages. (To see my post on rebuses and riddles click here.)

Rebus escort cards from 1865 – all with the same message: “May I see you home (my dear)?”

A few cards are unexpectedly funny, like the one that shows a fearsome, chained guard dog, a rifle, a bludgeon and a boot with nails sticking out of its sole. It has this message:

“Dear Miss: I will risk everything depicted here if you will permit me to see you as far as the gate.”

There’s this flirtatious card, with “Hello Girls, Let’s Get Acquainted” in one corner. “Looking for someone to love” is in another corner, just in case the card bearer’s intentions were unclear. “Not married and looking for a good time” is front and center on the card along with these stellar financial qualifications: “Capital $50,000,000 – If I don’t wake up.”

Some escort cards are downright risqué, coming from the likes of “The Kissing Rogue” and “Will U. Kiss Me” (“Other fellow’s girls given special attention – a trial is all I ask.”)

I’m sure watchful parents would have been quite upset to find racy cards like these among their daughter’s possessions. It might have been enough to get the poor girl temporarily exiled to an all-girls boarding school or sent to stay with boring relatives

But how much are escort cards really like the modern dating app Tinder? Though not as straightforward as Tinder, Victorian escort cards were evidently a discreet way to set up a non-socially sanctioned meeting between two interested individuals.

Instead of swiping right or left, the recipient of an escort card could choose whether or not, and how, to respond. It must have been thrilling for young Victorians to connect with potential suitors, however tamely, outside of approved social channels.

All told, escort cards may not have been as direct or instantaneous as today’s Tinder, but they definitely represent a significant step in the evolution of dating.

“Saucy ‘Escort Cards’ Were a Way to Flirt in the Victorian Era,” by Becky Little, National Geographic, January 4, 2016

May I See You Home: 19th Century Pickups for 21st Century Suitors, by Alan Mays, Clarkson Potter (an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York) 2018

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Puzzling through the Coronavirus Crisis

There’s no doubt about it. Jigsaw puzzles are having a moment. While weathering the COVID-19 pandemic, many people stuck at home are coping with the situation by doing puzzles.

Specifically, jigsaw puzzles. Sales have surged since stay-at-home orders went into effect, and puzzle makers are having a hard time meeting the demand.

Ravensburger, the largest puzzle manufacturer in the world, is reporting a 370 percent increase in U.S. sales, compared to this same time last year, due to the pandemic. In April of 2019 the German company sold an average of seven puzzles a minute to North Americans, according to a company spokesman. This last April the figure was more like 20 puzzles a minute.

Ceaco, one of the largest manufacturer of jigsaw puzzles and games in the U.S., is experiencing a similar surge in sales. In one day last March the company sold more jigsaw puzzles than they had during the entire month of December, according to its president.  

Why are jigsaw puzzles so popular right now? I can think of at least three reasons:

  1. Jigsaw puzzles are a great way to while away the hours when you’re stuck at home, as most of us are now. Puzzles are cheap, recyclable, and can be done alone or with others. They’re a tactile relief from TV screens and computer monitors.
  2. Puzzles are absorbing, much more so than other forms of at-home entertainment. You can spend hours looking for fragments of house or pieces of sky. Time just melts.
  3. And while you’re focused on a puzzle, it’s easy to forget about all the bad stuff going on the world, at least for a while. It’s a mental vacation, an escape from reality that won’t leave you with a hangover or regrets.

The Zen of jigsaw puzzling

When you dump a box of puzzle pieces on the table, all is chaos. Then you start sorting the pieces – perhaps by color, or maybe by edge pieces.

Slowly, you make order out of the chaos. As you work, an image begins to take shape before your eyes. You keep at it, fitting one piece at a time, figuring out its relationship to the whole.

When you get down to the last piece and the picture is complete, you feel utter success. You’ve done it! Life makes sense again, if only briefly. 

Our current crisis isn’t the first time people have turned to jigsaw puzzles for comfort. It also happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when millions of jigsaw puzzles were sold to a populace desperate for distraction.

So, in a way, working on a puzzle connects us with our grandparents and great grandparents, and that’s reassuring. They made it through hard times and we will, too. 

Jigsaw puzzle history

Spilsbury’s 1766 “dissected map” of Europe

Jigsaw puzzles were first invented in the mid-1760s by a London cartographer named John Spilsbury (1739-1769).

Spilsbury, who was also an engraver and print-maker, got the idea for turning a map into a learning game.

He got a sheet of wood and mounted a map on it. Then he cut the countries out by hand. These countries became pieces that could be fitted back into the map to complete the picture.

Spilsbury called his creation a “dissected map” and marketed it as an educational toy for children. He had maps of seven other areas in addition to Europe, including Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales, America, Africa, Asia, and one for the whole world.

After Spilsbury’s death in 1769, his wife and her new husband continued selling dissected maps. These were very popular; even the children of King George III were taught geography with the aid of one.

Hand-cut jigsaw puzzles were mainly used as educational aids in the early 19th century. But as the century went on, pictures as well as maps were used as illustrations. Machines, like the reciprocating saw patented in the 1850s, made the puzzles easier to manufacture. All these innovations helped jigsaw puzzles transition from an instructional tool or children to a recreational pastime for adults.

In America the Parker Brothers put their first puzzles on the market in 1887. By 1909 the puzzle craze was so strong that for a time the brothers devoted their whole operation to manufacturing jigsaw puzzles.

Postcard puzzles

A popular type of jigsaw puzzle around the turn of the 20th century was the postcard puzzle. The puzzle pieces were postcards – you’d have to collect all of them in a series to construct the puzzle.

Here’s a 1906 postcard puzzle depicting Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), a French actress as famous for her many lovers as she was for her acting ability.

Bernhardt began her long career on the stage at the Comédie-Française and ended it working in the motion picture industry.

This 10-postcard set shows her in costume in some of her most famous roles.

And here is another example of a postcard puzzle, a colorful novelty courtesy of the Cornell University Library.

This series of four postcards from 1907 depicts a “teddy bear,” a reference to Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt who was a U.S. president from 1901-1909.

Toy teddy bears were created in honor of Roosevelt after he refused to kill a captured bear during a hunting trip in 1902.

A puzzle that predicts the future

Some puzzles provide more than entertainment. I found a 1910 French puzzle predicting that the future of home heating would be tied to radium.

Pierre and Marie in 1903

Radium was an exciting new discovery at that time. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre discovered the element in 1898, an achievement that earned the scientists the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. Marie Curie (1867-1934) was the first woman ever awarded a Nobel Prize.

For a while radium was considered nothing short of a miracle. It was used in lots of products, including clocks, toys, toothpaste, cosmetics, other household items, and even impotence treatments. So it’s no surprise that in 1903 radium was touted as a promising new source of home heating in a Popular Science Monthly article.

But what neither the author of the article nor the fictional group of friends in the postcard puzzle could have known was that Marie Curie would later die of radiation poisoning, a direct result of her pioneering work. Other people developed radiation sickness and also died from exposure to the element before its use was curtailed.

1910 postcard puzzle of radium heating in the year 2000

So, the fact that radium as a heating source could be deadly was one flaw in the idyllic future depicted on the postcard. But what I find even more curious in this vision of the year 2000 is that women’s clothing and hairstyles were forecast to stay just as they were 90 years earlier in 1910.

I imagine that if the people basking in the glow of the radium-heated hearth could have glimpsed 21st-century fashion trends like yoga pants, spray tans and flat-ironed hair, their reaction would have been an astonished “sacré bleu!”

Original 1910 French illustration used to make postcard puzzle- note the words “en l’an 2000” (“in the year 2000”) written in the top left corner.

Jigsaw puzzles then and now

Picture puzzles were all the rage in the United States during the early 19th century, even out west in Oregon where I live. An adult daughter of the wealthy Pittock clan kept several jigsaw puzzles going at same time in rooms throughout the family’s 1914 French Renaissance-style mansion in Portland’s West Hills.

A hundred years ago puzzles were a plaything for the rich. In 1908 a 500-piece puzzle could cost as much as $5, which was a lot of money back when the average worker was lucky to make $50 per month.

Close-up view of a hand-cut, wooden jigsaw puzzle. (Photo by Charles Hamm, CC BY 3.0)

During the Depression, people got around the high cost of puzzles by making their own. Unemployed woodworkers or other craftsmen had the skills to make wooden puzzles at home and then sell or rent them to their neighbors. Businesses capitalized on the public’s thirst for jigsaw puzzles by giving away cheap cardboard versions that were advertisements for their products. Libraries and drugstores helped make puzzles even more accessible during those tough years by renting them for a few cents a day.

Cardboard puzzles had been around since the late 1800s, but were seen as low quality compared to wooden puzzles. But after World War II, technological improvements in die-cutting and lithography helped make cardboard puzzles prettier, easier to put together and cheaper to purchase. High quality reproductions of beautiful landscapes and classic paintings also made the cardboard puzzles more attractive to buyers.

Today you can easily find online jigsaw puzzles. But to me, these virtual puzzles leave something to be desired.

Jigsaw puzzles, with pieces you can spill on table and turn this way and that, are a year-round entertainment and a Christmas tradition in many families, including mine. But from now on when I see a jigsaw puzzle I’ll think of the half dozen (and counting) puzzles my husband and I pieced together during our quarantine to restore a little sanity to a crazy time.


“Demand for jigsaw puzzles is surging as coronavirus keeps millions of Americans indoors,” by Hannah Miller,, April 5, 2020.

“History of Jigsaw,” by Anne D. Williams, (article based on her book The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History,  Berkley Hardcover, November 2004), Puzzle Warehouse.

“With People Stuck At Home, Jigsaw Puzzle Sales Soar,” NPR, April 13, 2020

“A New Source of Heat: Radium,” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 63, May 1903, by Henry Carrington Bolton.

“9 Ways People Used Radium Before We Understood the Risks, “  by Adrienne Crezo, Mental Floss, October 9, 2012.

Images provided by Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons.