Cold War-Era Spy Shoelace Signaling


Here’s a bit of trivia that makes for a fitting follow-up to Richard Press’ column about George HW Bush.

In addition to being a Yale man, Bush also headed the CIA, and those two institutions are closely knit. Well, back in the 1950s, those Ivy-clad operatives learned special ways of tying the laces on their cordovan longwings. It looked something like this:


This image is from a 2009 book called “The Official CIA Manual Of Trickery And Deception,” by magician John Mullholland, who was hired by the CIA to teach field agents covert signaling and simple acts of legerdemain.

The Boston Globe has an excellent article on the book here, which includes the following observation that should appease those trads who abhor flamboyance of any kind:

Mulholland’s actual manual evokes a more understated, but eerier, figure – not a dashing hero with infinite James Bond-ian technology at his disposal, but a gray, anonymous person who “should be so normal in manner, and his actions so natural, that nothing about him excites suspicion.”

So all you gray, anonymous types rejoice: you could’ve saved the world from evil. Perhaps you still can. We could certainly use you. — CC

8 Comments on "Cold War-Era Spy Shoelace Signaling"

  1. I can’t help but envisage certain practical difficulties in using one’s shoelaces to communicate. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for a conversation.

    However I’m glad we’ve finally discovered the origins of no break trousers – obviously it enabled CIA agents to send messages more easily using shoelaces.

  2. Another use for those “gunboats” in the 1960s was as a vehicle in which for secret agent Maxwell Smart (Ivy era TV sitcom Get Smart, 1965-70) could conceal his “shoe phone”. Was Smart the fist person in history to disrupt a classical music concert with a ringing phone?

    1:33 video of this historic event at

  3. I asked my wife to marry me using the laces in my Florshiem Kenmoors in 2007. Young love.


  4. How did she respond? I’m guessing by removing her shoes.

  5. My wife has always said that she can tell a lot about men by their shoes. I have always thought that much could be determined about a man by his wife. Mine is a classic beauty (Billax reference). Va va va voom. Today is our twentieth first date anniversary.


  6. Bracelet Boy | December 7, 2015 at 12:16 pm |

    An Ivy hanky code?

  7. So this is why men in dark glasses and London Fog raincoats keep following me around Westminster. I’m altering all my shoes now.

  8. Do you like to hang around in locker rooms? Do you like movies about gladiators Jimmy? ;0P

Comments are closed.