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 ..day 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.)
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