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She found a hidden message in a vintage dress. 10 years later, she knows what it means

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Bismark, omit, leafage, buck, bank. Sara Rivers Cofield was shopping in 2013 when she noticed a well-kept silk bustle dress from the 1800s and paid $100 for it. When she got home, she discovered the dress had a secret pocket and, inside, a note with cryptic lines like that - also Calgary, Cuba, unguard, confute, duck, fagan. What did any of those lines mean? Ten years later, she knows the answer. Sara Rivers Cofield, archaeologist and curator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

SARA RIVERS COFIELD: Thank you so much for having me. It's such an honor.

SIMON: Tell us about the dress.

RIVERS COFIELD: Well, I collect antique clothing as a hobby. I've always been interested in the past. I'm an archaeologist for a living, and I study people by the everyday things that they had. But, you know, in archaeology, we don't typically find clothes. That doesn't survive in the archaeological record, so it's what I do in my spare time. I collect antique clothing, and I like that connection to the past. And this particular dress really spoke to me 'cause I didn't have any nice 1880s bustle dresses in my collection. And now it's turned into this huge story, which I had no idea it would be the future of this dress.

SIMON: You posted an image of the note on your personal blog. What happened?

RIVERS COFIELD: I posted it to my family, and I think somebody in my family posted it on Reddit, and then the code breakers got ahold of it. And somebody did guess all the way back then, 10 years ago, that it was a telegraph code. And when I looked into that, that seemed very likely. That totally fit exactly what the code looked like, why it was all marked off. But then the question becomes finding the right code books to break the code. And the real hero of this story is Wayne Chan, somebody who his hobby is breaking codes. He's at the University of Manitoba, and he's the one who broke this code by tracking down the right telegraph code books.

SIMON: Well, what does Bismark, omit, leafage, buck, bank mean?

RIVERS COFIELD: It's a weather report. I don't know the exact details, but it's something like the temperature, the barometric pressure, the dew point for May 27, 1888. And there's two sheets, and there's lots of cities' names.

SIMON: I'm sorry if this sounds naive, but why do you need a code just to say 56 degrees in Bismarck?

RIVERS COFIELD: Well, because sending a telegraph was expensive, so they made these books where one word stands for a whole phrase. So something like leafage might mean 52 degrees and wind south-southwest without having to spell all of that out. But the amount of work it took Wayne to figure that out is just phenomenal. And he had to do really good scholarship to figure that out. And I think some people are like, wow, that's kind of a letdown. But, you know, I'm really thrilled that it was just a weather report. My whole career as an archaeologist is devoted to understanding past lives through all the ephemeral, everyday items people left behind as trash or lost possessions. And this is one of those items we never think anymore about, having a weather app on our phone. And until the telegraph came around, people did not have advance notice of the weather. It's such a fundamental difference in how people live. And so that revelation from this one weather report is something that never occurred to me. It's amazing.

SIMON: Sara Rivers Cofield, archaeologist and curator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, thanks so much for being with us. And may all your days be Bismark, omit, leafage.

RIVERS COFIELD: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.