3 types of Victorian love puzzles (and 3 puzzles to solve by yourself)


Mental Floss columnist AJ Jacobs has written a fascinating book titled Mind puzzle which will be released on April 26, 2022. The book is an exploration of the history, science, and joy of all kinds of puzzles, from crosswords to puzzles to the meaning of life. In anticipation of publication, Mental Floss offers some historical information inspired by the book. Here is the second episode, about Victorian dating puzzles.

Dating in the age of Tinder and catfishing can seem confusing. But in Victorian England, romance was a real headache. Here are three ways 19th century bachelors got courted.

1. Love numbers in newspapers

The 19th century version of sexting involved placing coded classified ads in newspapers. Today, these ads are compelling, voyeuristic reads.

Some sound like heartbreaking news, like this deciphered one from 1869:

“Dad has arrived. Knows all. I refused your name. Scary scene. Offered. Accepted. Should we ever meet, ‘Remember’, complete strangers. Do not write, dangerous. Have mercy and forget- I. Farewell forever.—Greenwich.

Or this one, from 1856:

“I have the most beautiful horse in England, but not the most beautiful lady. Your silence pains me deeply. I cannot forget you.— M”

Here are two newspaper love numbers – the first from 1886, the second from 1866 – to decode; the solutions are at the bottom of this piece.

Digit 1:

B. to MN—Tn dvcr trw rhtn yltcfrp drtln yln srsd ts uy dn trw t uy.

Digit 2:

15 22 7, 14 22, 8 22 13 23, 24 12 9 9 22 8 11 12 13 23 22 13 24 22, 4 18 7 19 , 9 22 24 7 12 9, 12 21, 24 12 15 15 22 20 22, 18 7, 4 18 15 15, 22 3 11 15 26 18 13, 19 12 4, 7 19 18 13 20 8, 8 7 26 13 23, 18, 20 12, 26 25 9 12 26 23,13 22 3 7, 14 12 13 7 19

You can read a lot more in the book The codes and figures of the Agony column by Jean Palmer.

2. Acrostic Rings

Another secret way for men to declare their love was to give their crush a ring with coded gemstones. Acrostic rings – of which fans would have been included Napoleon and Marie Antoinette – were a type of jewelry in which the gemstones spelled out a message of love. If you take the first letter of each stone and put them together, you get a little name.

For example, this ring contains seven stones – diamond, emerald, amethyst, ruby, emerald, sapphire and tourmaline – spelling out “dearest”. Thanks to some jewelers, you can still put a secret message in acrostic jewelry today.

3. Rebus of calling cards

We explained how rebuses – a type of puzzle that combines words and pictures – were used in competitions during the Great Depression, but puzzles were popular long before that. In Victorian times, British gentlemen had cards pre-printed with their favorite pick-up lines, and often they came in the form of a rebus.

Here’s one that, when decoded, reads “Can I see you home dear?”

And here’s a more complicated one to try to solve yourself; the solution is below.

You can find these rebuses and many more at Alan Mays Flickr page and in his book, Can I see you at home?

For more history and puzzles like these, check out AJ Jacobs’ upcoming book Mind puzzlereleased from Crown Publishing on April 26, 2022. You can pre-order here. Copyright AJ Jacobs. All rights reserved.


Response from log figure #1: The secret is that the cipher omits vowels and spells words backwards. So the message is (something like): “Not received. Write another, perfectly unchanged. Only wanting to see you. I need to write to you.

Answer from log figure #2: Each letter is signified by a number, with A at 26, B like 25, and so on, up to Z like 1.


Response from Calling Card Rebus: The first symbols are pretty self-explanatory; they read “Eye M Uriah E. Heckert”. Then there is a O intertwined with a hoe, a J followed by a man, the letter R, and finally an if. When fully decoded, the card reads, “I am Uriah Heckert. Who the hell are you?”


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