Thursday, April 18, 2013

Prison sign language, circa 1941

By Jack Brummet, Corrections Ed.

In the 1940's, there was no talking allowed in the mess hall at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison. 

The prisoners came up with a workaround:  they developed a sign language that allowed them to get through their meals in silence. So the convicts developed a primitive sign language to communicate what food they wanted:
  • Upheld hand: more bread
  • Upraised fist: more potatoes
  • Upheld knife, fork and spoon: more stew
  • Washing motion with the hand: water
  • Thumb up and index finger straight out: coffee or tea
  • Open and close the hand as if milking a cow: milk
  • Hand flat and passed back and forth across the plate: gravy
  • Fork held up: meat
  • Thumb thrust through the fingers: vinegar
  • Two fingers thrust out: salt and pepper
  • If the person at the end of the table taps the table with his spoon: dessert is on the way
From the Milwaukee Sentinel — Nov 16, 1941: 


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