‘Unsolvable’ Code Hidden in Antique Dress Pocket Is Finally Cracked

Short, handwritten lines of unrelated words contained coded weather reports to send via telegraph in the late 19th century

Three views of a bronze-colored silk dress from the 1880s
The silk dress, which dates to the mid-1880s, in which the pieces of paper containing the code were found. They were tucked in a hidden pocket, the opening of which was hidden by an overskirt. Sara Rivers Cofield via NOAA

Mysterious messages found in the pocket of an antique dress have finally been decoded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Ten years ago, archaeologist and antique dress collector Sara Rivers Cofield found two crumpled pieces of paper tucked into a hidden pocket of a dress dating to the mid-1880s. Scrawled on the pages were nonsensical strings of text: One line, for example, read “Bismark, omit, leafage, buck, bank,” while another read “Calgary, Cuba, unguard, confute, duck, fagan.”

Rivers Cofield posted about the dress and its surprising contents on her blog in February 2014. The unintelligible words gained notoriety and soon became considered among the 50 most “unsolvable” codes in the world, per NOAA.

But last year, that changed. Wayne Chan, a research computer analyst at the University of Manitoba in Canada, determined the code words would have been used to transmit local weather via telegraph.

In those days, telegraph messages containing lots of information had to be condensed in order to save money. Chan explained in a 2023 paper in the journal Cryptologia that telegraph companies charged by the word—so encoding messages could effectively cut down their price.

The line beginning with Bismark, for example, seems to encode the weather in present-day Bismarck, North Dakota, on May 27, 1888, at 10 p.m. The short list of five words has wide-reaching weather data—air temperature, barometric pressure, dew point, precipitation, wind direction, cloud conditions, wind velocity and sunset observations—all baked into it.

“For the first time, the telegraph allowed news about the weather to travel faster than the weather itself,” Chan tells Cameron MacIntosh of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC News).

When Rivers Cofield first found the bronze-colored dress, she wasn’t aware of the notes tucked away inside of it, or even its hidden pocket. She purchased it at an antique mall in Maine in 2013. In her blog post, Rivers Cofield calls it “a textbook mid-1880s silk bustle dress” (a bustle is a padding or structure that pushes out the skirt at the dress’ rear).

The garment’s silk was in good condition, and it still had the original buttons, Rivers Cofield wrote on her blog. The buttons appeared to have images of Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

A closer examination of the dress revealed a paper tag sewn into the bodice with the name “Bennett” handwritten in cursive. It wasn’t until Rivers Cofield turned the dress inside out that she discovered a pocket that had been hidden by the overskirt.

“It wouldn’t have been possible to get at the pocket at all without causing a rip if someone had the dress on,” Rivers Cofield wrote on her blog.

“It’s a bit of a private spot—it almost seems like it was protected,” she tells CBC News.

Her post went viral, and people began concocting theories about the meaning of the notes, with some speculating they could be tied to the Civil War. The age of the dress, however, made that unlikely. A more plausible explanation was that the text was meant to be sent by telegraph.

a book open to its title page, which says US Department of Agriculture, US weather bureau, Weather Code, December 1, 1892
The title page of the 1892 weather code book that helped translate the notes. Sean Jones, NOAA Central Library

Chan became interested in tracking down the telegraphic code used in the notes, so he searched through 170 different codebooks—without success. Eventually, he found a book with a section on the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ weather code, and with it, he felt he was onto something.

Certain aspects of the notes, such as the length of the lines (around five to seven words) and the fact that they started with the name of a place, were reminiscent of the weather codes Chan had come across, according to CBC News. He contacted a NOAA librarian who led him to an 1892 telegraphic code book for weather, which helped Chan confirm the notes did in fact contain meteorological reports.

With the code book and other resources, Chan determined the messages were from Army Signal Service weather stations in the U.S. and Canada, per NOAA.

The line “Bismark, omit, leafage, buck, bank” meant that in Bismarck, the temperature was 56 degrees Fahrenheit and the barometric pressure was 30.08 Hg—information encoded in the word “omit.” The word “leafage” conveyed the dew point was 32 degrees at 10 p.m. Skies were clear with no precipitation and wind from the north (“buck”), blowing at 12 miles per hour (“bank”).

Chan and Rivers Cofield are still unsure about who owned the dress and how they ended up with the weather report. Several women worked as clerical staff for the Army Signal Service in Washington, D.C. in the 1880s, per NOAA. But Chan couldn’t find records of anyone named “Bennett” working there at the time, leaving that bit of the mystery still unsolved.

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