Clothes can divulge many details about the character of the person wearing them. In this case, one article of clothing, namely a dress, has revealed how weather forecasting was conducted in North America during the 1800s. Concealed in the secret pocket of a brown silk dress were paper notes with messages written in code.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the silk bustle dress was from the 1880s. In 2013, an archaeologist named Sarah Rivers Cofield saw the dress for sale at an antique mall in Maine. She often collected old dresses and handbags for fun and was drawn to this particular dress because of its metal buttons and elaborate folds.
Upon closer inspection of the garment while at home, she discovered a secret pocket sewn in the seams of the skirt, which held crumpled handwritten notes. The notes contained lines of text filled with seemingly random words.
One line read, “Bismark, omit, leafage, buck, bank.” Another read, “Calgary, Cuba, unguard, confute, duck, fagan.” A third listed the words “Spring, wilderness, lining, one, reading, novice.”
Rivers Cofield posted about her strange discovery online in the hopes that someone would be able to help crack the code. Soon enough, several theories began trickling in. Many stated that the messages appeared to be some kind of telegraphic code, especially since the notes and the dress came from a time when sending telegraphs became a common form of communication.
The invention of the telegraph completely changed the entire infrastructure of communication across the globe. People could send and receive messages more quickly than ever. In the United States, they contacted each other through telegram by making a series of long and short taps on one end of the wire.
An operator would record these taps on the other end as visible dots and dashes, which could be sent several towns over. Too many words could make communicating by telegraph expensive since companies would charge by the number of words, so a type of shorthand was developed to keep costs down.
The telegram theory was promising, but the meaning of the messages remained a mystery for another decade. Finally, Wayne Chan, a researcher from the University of Manitoba, realized that the weather code used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps was similar to the codewords from the dress. To confirm the connection, he studied a copy of a weather telegraph codebook published in 1892.
After sifting through other resources from the NOAA, he determined that the messages were from Signal Service weather stations in the U.S. and Canada. He also learned that each line written on the papers contained codes about the weather in certain locations.