The Hidden Language of Stamps


Once upon a time, before text messages and email that could be kept between two people, the art of communicating sometimes required secrecy.

If anyone feared their postcard being intercepted by a family member or friend, all they had to do was pull out their book of secret stamp language and figure out the code of the stamp’s placement.


Of course, such a code had its downsides – the message of the stamp based on its orientation changed from source to source. One code suggests that an upside-down stamp means “I am not free,” while another suggests that the same placement means “I love you truly” or “I am always true to you”. You can imagine what sort of misunderstandings this could cause.

However, the “language of the stamps” still strikes our fancy. If you want to write to a loved one and send them a secret message via stamp placement, here are some codes from the Philatelic Database:


Stamp Placement:

  • Upside down, top left corner: I love you
  • Diagonal on top left corner: My heart is another’s
  • Top center of envelope: Yes
  • Bottom center of envelope: No
  • Right side up: Goodbye sweetheart
  • Upside-down, top right corner: Write no more
  • At a right angle, top right corner: I hate you

…And these are just a few of them!


Some of these are excessively harsh – but at least they saved the recipient their dignity if anyone else were to discover the letter.

It’s possible that stamp language was actually barely used. Vintage novelty postcards tout the language of the stamps and show what certain placements mean, but doesn’t it kind of ruin the purpose if it translates it right there on the card?


But if the card gives no explanation to the placement of the stamp, it’s completely up to the receiver to determine what code was used.

If you used a secret stamp code, who would you send it to and what would it say?

Images from this source.


Old Fashioned Remedies: DIY Rose Water Lotion

Nothing says nice weather like a dab of homemade rose water in your very own homemade recipe. Its light, fresh scent will make you feel refreshed.

Roses have been used for medicinal and nutritional uses since ancient times.



The Rose Water

Making rose water is simple. All you need are fresh rose petals, preferably without pesticides, that have been rinsed off. It’s best to pluck your own, but make sure you aren’t doing anything that would anger your neighbors.

Also grab a pot, gauging the size by how much water you want.

Put the petals in the pot and fill with enough water to cover the petals (not too much!). Cover the pot and let it simmer until the petals lose their color. This is the simplest and most traditional method.

Drain the liquid into a container and you have your rose water!



The Lotion

Now your rose water is ready to mix in with the lotion.

It’s a simple recipe: mix half rose water and half vegetable glycerin together.

Put the mixture in a nice bottle and voila! You have your old fashioned rose water lotion.

You’ve bottled the smell of spring!


Prohibition Postcards

Both sides of prohibition, whether pro- or anti-, were well represented on postcards. Many of these vintage postcards can be found today as great pieces of history.

By the 1890’s, saloons were just about everywhere in the United States. And some at the time saw drinking as an immoral practice that caused men to spend all their money at saloons instead of necessities for their wife and children. This view of alcohol as a ruiner of families led to the Temperance Movement, in which primarily women and religious leaders sought to reduce drinking.

Nationwide prohibition began in the U.S. in 1920.

Vintage postcards make for remarkable examples in both sides of the prohibition arguments.

The family issue was brought up on many pro-prohibition postcards. Saloons were cast with a light of immorality, and some postcards held persuasive arguments against them. One such vintage postcard says, “A Saloon can no more be run without using up boys than a flouring-mill without wheat, or a saw-mill without logs. The only question is, whose boys – your boy or mine – our boys, or our neighbors’?”CIMG1360

On the flip side, other prohibition cards made light of the situation with humorous scenes reminiscing about the good ol’ days of legal alcohol.

Camels made for a popular theme on prohibition cards. As one prohibition card says, “A camel can go without a drink for eight days – But who the devil wants to be a camel?”prohibition002

And some anti-prohibition cards made their own arguments about the economic benefits of bars.


The man on the card dreams of all the jobs that salons create.


United States prohibition ended in 1933, thirteen years after its beginning.

Prohibition postcards make for great collectors items. If you’re interested in the camel postcards, head here to see if we have them on auction!



Postcardiva for postcards & info

Antique Trader for extensive history

The Victor Talking Machine Company

No discussion of records or record players is complete without bringing up the Victor Talking Machine Company.

The company is well known for its logo, showing a fox terrier looking into a phonograph with the words “His Master’s Voice.” (Some claim that the surface the dog sits on is his master’s coffin, though that’s never been confirmed.)

The company name “Victor” could have come from a number of inspirations. One such story says that the business founder Eldridge R. Johnson chose it for its resemblance to the word “victory”, saying it would a “scientific and business ‘victory.’” Another story says it comes from the battle of the patents over Berliner and Frank Seaman’s Zonophone. These aren’t the only guesses, but are the most widely accepted theories.602px-RedSealTetrazziniBatti

The fox terrier in the logo is named ‘Nipper’. In 1898 the artist Francis Barraud painted his brother’s dog Nipper listening to the horn of a phonograph; the Victor Talking Machine Company started using the image as its logo.

The company released a number of different kinds of phonographs. The earlier versions ran purely on the acoustic method, with zero electricity.

Victor gained its name by recording famous performers. Most performers charged much more than Victor could make up for in record sales – but it paid off later by making the business’s name well known. Victor released the recordings by the most popular music names of the time under the “Red Seal” records, catapulting the Victor name to success.

The Carter Family promotional Victor portrait.

The Carter Family promotional Victor portrait.

Radio found its way into families’ living rooms in the 1920s, and Victor had to adapt to the new music culture and technology. Victor moved to an electrical-based recording system using a microphone and released the new records under the name “Orthophonic Victrolas”.

The Victor Talking Machine Company existed from 1901 to 1929, when it was sold to the Radio Corporation of America, which later became the company RCA Victor. It’s still a very recognizable company from its image of Nipper the dog looking into the phonograph.

Rotary Dial Telephones

Rotary phones, now long extinct from any actual use, still make for great collectibles.

Tiny, speed-of-light hand-held phones have now taken over. But there’s something romantic and charming about having to slow dial a number instead of pressing a single button on your speed dial. Plus, vintage rotary phones look pretty darn good sitting on a table at home.

The rotary style telephone was popular through much of the 20th century. The first telephone dials were very complicated, needing complex sequences to function. This was improved upon and simplified over time for a better-functioning system.

A rotary dial telephone charm, available here.

A rotary dial telephone charm, available here.

The science-inclined might now be asking: How does a rotary dial phone work?

It all starts with a pulse. The number that the caller dials sends out a certain frequency of pulses. Once the number is dialed, a recoil spring inside sends the dial back to its starting position. The series of pulses interrupt the current flow of the phone’s line and the information goes to a selector system that makes the outgoing connection.

The rotary dial was slowly replaced by the keypad push-button phone, an invention introduced at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle.

Some places still use rotary phones for historical purposes, like the U.S. Route 66 Blue Swallow Motel, which promotes itself through its vintage Route 66 appeal.

Now, of course, home phones will soon become things of the past, with our phones buzzing in our pockets instead of ringing in the air.

It’s the Bee’s Knees!

It’s hard to think back to the flappers of the 1920s without evoking the phrase “bee’s knees”. The phrase implies something of the highest quality, but what is it about the nook of a bee’s leg that suggests the epitome of excellence?


One possible origin comes from the 1920s dancer Bee Jackson. She made the Charleston popular and became world famous for it. It’s possible that “bee’s knees” comes from Jackson’s dancing; however, the phrase precedes her fame.

Starting in the late 18th century, the expression was simple nonsense, meaning something useless or meaningless. As this source cites, one New Zealand newspaper in 1906 listed the cargo of the SS Zealandia as ‘a quantity of post holes, 3 bags of treacle and 7 cases of bee’s knees.’ And that’s only one of many similar uses of the phrase.

Flappers in the 1920s, ever the fashionable crowd, loved to make nonsense phrases out of animal-related terms. The “cat’s pyjamas,” the “snake’s hips,” the “flea’s eyebrows,” the “bee’s knees” – all of these meant something that was at the height of cool. Designated as “flapper talk,” not much of the lingo stuck around, but at least “bee’s knees” is here to stay.

Detail of a vintage sheet music cover.

Detail of a vintage sheet music cover.

Flapper lingo is all-around a creative and fun way to talk. Check out this list and see if you can bring back some of these words & phrases — and tell us your favorites!

The Symbolism of Flowers

Watch out: If you’re given a red geranium, the gift might not have good intentions.

Flowers, especially in the Victorian era, often have hidden (and sometimes not-so-hidden) symbolism. Red geraniums just happen to carry an insult: they mean “stupidity”.

But worry not, most popular flowers today have positive messages. And with spring just around the corner, it would be helpful to know these messages.

Floriography, the language of flowers, communicates messages through flower arrangements.

While France hit a floriography phase in the first half of the 19th century, the practice was most common in the Victorian era in Britain, at the time when lack of modesty was frowned upon and subtlety and tact had to go a long way for communication. Victorian men courting women used flowers to say to their beloved what they would not outright say in front of her parents or chaperones.


A vintage advertisement featuring chrysanthemums.

A vintage advertisement featuring chrysanthemums, symbols for optimism or joy.

Flowers can mean more than one thing, depending on the symbol guide you check. But usually it’s not hard to get to the bottom of their meaning.

Want to know what your flowers mean? Here’s a cheat sheet for some of the more common flowers:

Azalea – abundance
Crocus – youth
Daffodil – chivalry
Daisy – innocence
Freesia – spirited
Forget-Me-Not – remember me forever (as if that one wasn’t obvious)
Gardenia – joy
Hydrangea – perseverance
Jasmine – grace and elegance
Lavender – distrust
Lilac – first love
Rhododendron – beware
Pink Rose – friendship
Red Rose – passionate love
White Rose – purity
Yellow Rose – zealous or jealousy
Sunflower – adoration
Violet – faithfulness

Note the less savory symbols, like Lavender’s “distrust”. Other such insults include Amaryllis’s “haughtiness”, Peony’s “anger”, and Yellow Carnation’s “you have disappointed me.”

Flowers have been used as symbolism in art and literature as well. Authors including Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte used flower language in their works, and Pre-Raphaelites commonly used symbolic flowers in their pieces, like in John Everett Millais’s painting Ophelia.


More extensive list of flower symbolism


Where Does the Phrase “Backseat Driver” Come From?

Where does the idiom “backseat driver” come from?

The phrase itself today means to give unwanted or critical advice from the sidelines, usually giving directions from the back of a car to a driver.

The literal backseat drivers from the days of yore may have had something to do with this saying. Firemen used to use long “articulated ladder trucks” with both front and back steering to help the truck turn with control.

However, there’s no known negative association with driving in the back of these trucks.file000715699119

According to this source, one of the first known appearances of the phrase occurred in 1914 in the Daily Kennebec Journal:

“When New York pitcher Vernon Gomez retires as a smokeballer he wants to become a smoke eater. Here he gets a tryout as a back-seat driver on a hook and ladder truck at St. Petersburg…”

That also has a more literal meaning, but here’s a line from 1921 explaining the meaning we’re more familiar with today:

“A back-seat driver is the pest who sits on the rear cushions of a motor car and tells the driver what to do. He issues a lot of instructions, gives a lot of advice, offers no end of criticism. And doesn’t do a bit of work.”

Harsh, but that’s the way it is.

The idiom “armchair quarterback” has a similar meaning, referring to a sports fan who shouts advice at a sports player from the sidelines or in front of the TV during a game.

Of course, those newfangled “robot cars” will someday eliminate any need for a backseat driver, as this 1950s magazine article explains:

The Tintype: Photo Magic of the 19th Century

Tintypes were pretty great inventions.

Today we have our instant photos; we can take a snapshot and immediately see the photo on screen.

In the 19th century this would have seemed like some crazy science fiction written by Jules Verne.

The 19th century equivalent of photo magic was the tintype.

There’s actually no tin in the tintype, despite its name.


A tintype of a man with a great goatee.

Tintypes could be developed completely in a matter of minutes and then handed to the customer, making photography available to everyone for the first time. These portraits started in formal settings and photographic studios, but later photographers would sell them at fairs or carnivals, or at sidewalk sales. They were most popular between 1860-1870.

Adding an element of danger, the chemical process required to develop a tintype included hazardous chemicals.

To lighten up the tintype as much as possible, the developer had to use the chemical potassium cyanide, a powerful and deadly poison. Thankfully, unless the chemical was ingested, it wouldn’t do any harm.


A great tintype of an older woman.

The tintype had the ability to capture a much wider variety of subjects and locations than ever before. It even caught moments of the Civil War and the Wild West.

Tintypes come in a variety of packaging. Some came in quality leather cases, others in thin cards with a window cut out for the photo, and carnival photos with festive poses came in colorful cases.

If you find yourself buying a tintype, it’s important to know to NOT clean its surface, which can be very delicate. See here for more tintype cleaning information. This list is also great for finding the rough date your tintype was made. And if you’re itching to get your own, find some great tintypes here.

Do you own any tintypes? Let us know in the comments!

Why Are Meals Square?

“A square meal a day” keeps the doctor away. Or so they should say.

We’re told that our meals should be square and then we’ll be the epitome of health.

But why “square”? Why not “rectangular” or “heart-shaped”?

The jury’s out on this one. The phrase probably comes from the use of “square” as meaning “fair and square”, or honest and straightforward. Who doesn’t want an honest, satisfying meal?

One of the earliest appearances of the phrase was in a U.S. newspaper in 1856:

“We can promise all who patronize us that they can always get a hearty welcome and ‘square meal’ at the ‘Hope and Neptune. Oyster, chicken and game suppers prepared at short notice.”


More literally square than figuratively square: the fifties TV dinner.

The rumors surrounding the term are more entertaining than its actual origin.

  • One such tale suggests that sailors used to eat off of square plates. The plates weren’t often filled all the way, but sometimes they would receive a large enough meal to fill the whole plate, making it a literal square meal. The Royal Navy did in fact serve meals on square plates, but the much later appearance of the phrase makes it unlikely that the Navy was the origin.
  • Another tale of medieval Britain suggests a square dinner plate with a bowl carved out in the middle to hold a serving of stew. Travelers would take this square with them in case they ran into some friendly neighborhood stew-cookers.
  • Yet another story suggests that the rigid way soldiers sat in the U.S. Military during meals formed a square shape, making a visit to the mess hall a square meal.

None of these tales are likely true, since “square meal” only showed up mid-19th century. But they make for good stories.

An 1865 edition of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine wrote about a mining town and said, “Says the proprieter of a small shanty, in letters that send a thrill of astonishment through your brain: ‘LOOK HERE! For fifty cents you CAN GET A GOOD SQUARE MEAL at the HOWLING WILDERNESS SALOON!”

The writer needed to explain that this meant a “substantial repast” of sustenance. Clearly “square meal” needed a little time to become familiar.


World Wide Words