I love fans! They are so pretty. I think what initially made me so excited about them was that I could not find any to buy in shops. There were cheap paper ones in an Asian style, but that was all I could find.
One day, when looking through the window of an antique shop, I discovered a fan that took my breath away. I thought it was beautiful! I went into the store and promptly bought it for $80! I was shocked at myself, as it seemed a bit expensive, but just couldn’t walk by without having it.
Since my first fan “acquisition”, I have managed to find a wealth of them available and have become a bit of a collector. I have also become rather interested in the history of fans, and their use in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
There have been many modern day references to “the language of the fan” in history, and it has been suggested that women used to communicate secretly to their love interests through the fluttering of these instruments. The first “manual” published to this effect was by Duvelleroy, a fan maker in Paris in 1827, who distributed the booklet with the fans he sold. Daniel Shafer also printed a version of this fan language in his book, Secrets of Life Unveiled (1877). Whilst this demonstrates published evidence of a “language of the fan” in circulation, it is unclear how much it was followed in everyday life, as it is not mentioned in much of the contemporary literature of the time.
Whilst Duvelleroy may have only used his booklet as a marketing ploy, there were some earlier authors who made reference to the power of a fan in a Lady’s hand, which suggests that ladies certainly welded their fans with a purpose.
The Spectator issued a famous satirical article in 1711, regarding the beginning of a new “Academy for the training up of young Women in the Exercise of the Fan“.
…Woman are armed with Fans as Men with Swords, and sometimes do more Execution with them. …
…There is an infinite Variety of Motions to be made use of in the Flutter of a Fan. There is the angry Flutter, the modest Flutter, the timorous Flutter, the confused Flutter, the merry Flutter, and the amorous Flutter. Not to be tedious, there is scarce any Emotion in the Mind that does not produce a suitable Agitation in the Fan; insomuch, that if I only see the Fan of a disciplin’d Lady, I know very well whether she laughs, frowns, or blushes. I have seen a Fan so very angry, that it would have been dangerous for the absent Lover who provoked it to have come within the Wind of it; and at other times so very languishing, that I have been glad for the Lady’s sake that the Lover was at a sufficient Distance from it. …
An excerpt from The Spectator, No. 102, 1711.
Whilst Addison wrote with a satirical purpose, certainly exaggerating women’s use of a fan, it is evident from Madame Stael’s comment below, that women certainly used their fans to create an atmosphere around themselves.
What graces does not a fan place at a woman’s disposal if she only knows how to use it properly! It waves, it flutters, it closes, it expands, it is raised or lowered according to circumstances. Oh! I will wager that in all the paraphernalia of the loveliest and best-dressed women in the world, there is no ornament with which she can produce so great an effect.
Madame Stael (1766-1817), quoted in Every Woman’s Encyclopaedia (1910)
In Disraeli’s example of Spanish women below, the fan plays an important role in communicating the emotion or mood of a lady through its gestures, in much the same way as an Italian man “talks with his hands”.
A Spanish lady with her fan might shame the tactics of a troop horse. Now she unfurls it with the slow pomp and conscious elegance of the bird Juno, now she flutters it with all the languor of listless beauty, now with all the liveliness of a vivacious one. Now in the midst of a very tornado she closes it with a whirr, which makes you start. Pop! In the midst of your confusion, Dolores taps you on the elbow; you turn round to listen, and Catalina pokes you in your side. Magical instrument! In this land it speaks a particular language, and gallantry requires no other mode to express its most subtle conceits or its most unreasonable demands than this delicate machine.
“Contarini Fleming” by Benjamin Disraeli (1846)
Even though there is published evidence of a “language of the fan”, it may be better to think of the fan as an extension of the hand, and in this way its movements mirror and convey the lady’s mood and emotion, rather than it being involved in a secret language.
To finish, a poem!Now let the Muse my lovely Charge remind, Lest they, forgetful, leave their Fanns behind. Oh! lay not, Nymphs, the pretty Toy aside, A Toy at once display’d for Use and Pride; A wondrous Engine, that by Magick Charms Cools your own Breasts, and er’ry others warms! What daring Bard shall e’er attempt to tell The Pow’rs that in this little Engine dwell? What Verse can e’er explain its various Parts, Its num’rous Uses, Motions, Charms, and Arts? Its painted Folds that oft, extended wide, Th’ afflicted Fair-ones blubber’d Beauties hide; When secret Sorrows her sad Bosom fill, When Strephon is unkind, or Shock is ill: Its Sticks, on which her Eyes dejected pore, And pointing Fingers number o’er and o’er; When the kind Virgin burns with secret Shame, Dies to consent, yet fears to own her Flame; Its Shake triumphant, its victorious Clap, Its angry Flutter, and its wanton Tap.
Excerpt from The Art of Dancing, by Soame Jenyn (1729)
Fans are my cup of tea! Do you own a fan?
Sources and Relevant Links
Image Source from Daniel Shafer’s “Secrets of Life Unveiled” (1877)
The Art of Dancing, A Poem in Three Cantos, by Soame Jenyn (1729)