Let a Pineapple Speak For You
The transmission of secret messages through codes or ciphers has throughout history often been a matter of life or death. One only needs to think of Mary Queen of Scots, who was beheaded for treason when her cipher was broken, or Alan Turing, who, by creating a machine to decode messages encoded by the Enigma, saved millions of lives in the Second World War.
For the expression of romantic emotions, less complex codes have found a wide usership. Most famous among these is perhaps the language of flowers. A beautiful example of a key to flower symbolism is this little book illustrated by Kate Greenaway.
During the Victorian age, the language of flowers became extremely popular, which made it a widely understood means of communication. However, this rendered ‘floriography’ useless to anyone desiring to keep romantic communication private in order to circumvent parental disapproval or public humiliation. The unknown author(s) of the 1854 Electro-magnetischer Liebestelegraph, oder neue Zeichensprache zur Verständigung unter Liebenden und Anderen (‘Electro-magnetic love telegraph, or a new sign language for the communication between lovers and others’) therefore believed a new secret language was required.
The exchange of ordinary items was encoded to transmit very specific messages. If the item was inconvenient, for example a postman or an oven, then a toy replica, a drawing of the item or the word alone was used. The author(s) took great pains to come up with whole sentences that could be signified through objects.
The assigned meanings are supposed to resemble the ‘natural significance’ of their objects. A letter or postman means ‘awaiting a message from you’; a hand -‘desiring your hand in marriage’; a knife -‘your words have caused me deep pain’; a peacock -‘your vanity makes you unbearable’; an oven -‘being near you warms my heart.’ Curious examples include a Badewanne (bathtub), signifying ‘only from the moment I saw you did my life truly begin’; a Pantoffel (slipper) -‘to kiss you would be a punishment for me’; a Kaffeelöffel (coffee spoon) -‘when I see you, all my sorrows disappear’; a Biber (beaver) -‘if you can offer me a house of my own, ask again’; or an Ananas (pineapple) -‘nothing compares to the sweetness of your kiss’.
The author(s) of this work were aware that their code was not the most poetic way for the communication between lovers. Moreover, it is probably a good idea to take this Liebestelegraph with a grain of salt, as the text moves between helpful instructions and amusing banter. The appendix for example includes helpful suggestions of other ways for secret communication such as musical code (see image below), or hiding a message on a candy wrapper, which is an example for steganography (simply hiding a message), which constitutes the oldest form of secret writing.
Keeping the Liebestelegraph in mind, however, can also add a bit of secret fun to the exchange of ordinary items in everyday life. Perhaps the next time someone hands you a book, you should ask yourself: is he or she trying to say ‘let my pleading open your closed heart to me’?
Intern, Western Heritage Collections
Simon Singh, The Science of Secrecy. The Secret History of Codes and Codebreaking. (London, 2000) YC.2001.a.11619
Visit the website of the Royal Collection Trust to learn more about the Victorians and floriography