Decode the Meaning of Handkerchief Flirtations

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My great-grandmother was born just before the start of the Civil War and so spent her teens in the postwar decade. Courtship was much more ritualistic in those days, and while I hate to think of my grandma as a flirt, I’ve seen photographs of her as a young girl, and there was a definite twinkle in those eyes beneath the long brown curls.

Among her belongings was a notebook containing full instructions on how to use a handkerchief to send myriad signals to a hopeful suitor.

For those who might like to recall how a “nice” girl could meet a “nice” boy, here are Grandma Libby’s Handkerchief Flirtations.

Drawing across the lips: I am desirous of an acquaintance.
Drawing across the eyes: I am sorry.
Drawing across the cheek: I love you.
Drawing across the forehead: We are watched.
Drawing through the hands: I hate you.
Dropping: We will be friends.
Folding: I wish to speak with you.
Letting it rest on the right cheek: Yes.
Letting it rest on the left cheek: No.
Letting it remain on the eyes: You are cruel.
Opposite corners in both hands: Wait for me.
Over the shoulder: Follow me.
Placing it on the right ear: You have changed.
Taking it in the center: You are too willing.
Twirling in both hands: Indifference.
Twirling in left hand: I wish to be rid of you.
Twirling in right hand: I love another.
Twirling around forefinger: I am engaged.
Twirling around third finger: I am married.
Flirting at your side once: You’re a flirt.
Flirting at your side three times: Go to the Devil.
Flirting over the head: Go to thunder.
Putting in the pocket: No more at present.

It was an intricately subtle language. Pity the poor chap who didn’t know how to decode it.

Excerpt from “Grandma Libby’s Handkerchief Flirtations,” Yankee Magazine, February 1987


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