Monday, October 3, 2011

Every lady needs a fan-tastic accessory - The history and language of the fan.

Cassie’s Regency Tidbits

Hello everyone, today I am blogging about the language of the fan. There is something about secret ways of communicating, don’t you think? I remember as a child making up codes with my friends so we could write secret letters to each other. The language of the fan was a bit like that only, not so secret. Like all good things we should start at the beginning.
The fan has been around for a long, long time at least 3,000 years. Records show that the Greeks, the Etruscans and Romans used fans. Early fans were not the folding type we recognize but the fixed version. The first folding fans were brought over to England from Europe. In the 18th Century the East India Company imported fans and both men and women used them. However, by the Victorian period the fan was purely for women only.

In a book by: Bennett, Anna G., and Ruth Berson it is mentioned that a 1740’s version of The Gentleman’s Magazine mentions the Speaking Fan (see link below to the magazine). This “speaking fan” didn’t actually make any noise but supposedly could be used to spell out messages from across a room, by using motions of the fan to translate into letters of the alphabet.

In the following example the alphabet, with the exception of “J”, was split up into five sections. These sections corresponded to one of the following movements.
  1. Moving the fan with the left hand to the left arm.
  2. Moving the fan with the right hand to the left arm
  3. Placing the fan against the bosom
  4. Raising the fan to the mouth
  5. Raising the fan to the forehead.
Here is an example of how it should work: In order to signal the letter D, one would use movement 1 – left hand to left arm (to signal the first segment of the alphabet), followed by movement 4 – raising fan to mouth (to indicate the 4th letter of the alphabet. Woe be told if the fan-er was a bad speller.

By contrast, The Language of the Fan, published by Pierre Duvelleroy ( the Parisian fan maker, seems much simpler in that it conveys a whole phrase rather than letter by letter.

In the Regency period, the language of the fan was a way of communicating with the opposite sex in a social situation. Balls were often crowded, noisy, hot and smelly affairs where using your fan as a way to communicate was very effective. Fans became more than just a way of keeping cool in a crush, they were the must have fashion accessory. There were many different types of fans, some for the daytime, evening and there were even fans for when one was in mourning. These desirable fans were made from all sorts of materials like wood, silk, ivory from Africa and sometimes even chicken skin or kid. Some of these fans were highly decorated with jewelry and or feathers and pretty painted scenes.

Here are a few examples of the language of the fan:

Right hand in front of face: follow me
Left hand in front of face: desirous of acquaintance
Drawing across the forehead: you have changed
Drawing through the hand: I hate you
Drawing across the cheek: I love you
Twirling in left hand: we are watched
Twirling in right hand: I love another
Carrying in right hand: you are too willing
On left ear: I wish to get rid of you
Presented shut: do you love me?
Shut the fully opened fan very slowly: I promise to marry you
To watch some of the language of the fan in action click on this link

As a small aside I just wanted to mention a blog I came across while I was researching this article. A blogger on Mass Historia suggests that the language of the fan was not as widely used as we might think. In fact it is his pet peeve. Granted, he is talking more about the Victorian age in his blog, however, if his argument is valid, would it not have been the same for the Regency? His argument is that in order for the language of the fan to have actually worked – the gentlemen of the time would have had to study it too. He tends to think that they would not have bothered. What do you think? Do you think the men of the Regency and Victorian period would have studied the language of the fan?
If you would like to learn more about fans, their origins and their language check out some of the links below.
1. ^ Bennett, Anna G., and Ruth Berson. Fans in Fashion. [San Francisco]: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1981. Print.
2. ^ Steele, Valerie. The Fan: Fashion and Femininity Unfolded. New York: Rizzoli, 2002. Print.


Patricia said...

I HAD NO CLUE! That is really a trip! I have to share this with people. Wow! An entire language that I was unaware of until now!

Vonnie said...

That's terrific, and now I want to hear more about the Japanese and Chinese influence.

Maggi Andersen said...

How interesting. I think the men would have cottoned on to the more obvious messages which affected them directly.

Helen said...

loved the post

I agree with Maggie I think the men of the regency and victorian eras would have understood it well especially the rakes

Have Fun

Cassandra Samuels said...

Hi Maggi

I think the men would not so much studied it but observed it and learnt the language from their parents an or peers.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the signals would have been common. I'm not sure if the men would have bothered with them all. And wouldn't the ladies be considered flirts if they used them too much? Fun to think about tho. :)
Emma Lane
Find me @ Musa Publishing.

Christina Phillips said...

How fascinating! A lady would have to be very careful what she did with her fan in case she sent the wrong message *lol*!

Allison Butler said...

Hi Cassandra,

Thank you so much for such a fascinating article. I love the hint of secrecy, despite others knowing what was being communicated silently across the room:)
They look to be beautiful accessories. Were there people that specialised in making fans?
As for the men studying the language - I think they probably made it their business to know what they needed to know to get by:)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Fascinating post, Cassie! I wonder how long it took to learn all the actions?

LOL, Christina. I'm sure there's a book waiting to be written about sending a man the wrong messages. ;-)

Marguerite Butler said...

I'm not sure how secret a language could be if everyone supposedly knew it. But what an intriguing idea for sending coded messages by fan.

Cassandra Samuels said...

Hi Marguerite

I know what you mean about how secret could it possibly have been. I would think the lady would have to be very discreet and pick her moments carefully.

Maybe that is where the speaking fan might have worked although by the time you signaled a whole sentence the other person may have fallen asleep. Tee hee.

Cassandra Samuels said...


Thanks for dropping by. I would think the chinese and Japanese fans would have been absolute works of art. Absolutely worth looking more into.

Cassandra Samuels said...


Great to see you here.

Maybe they only took enough notice not to get themselves into trouble. Men are men afterall - not that much changes. ha ha.

Do you think that the ladies may have even had a modified version to speak to each other?

Eleni Konstantine said...

Cassie, fantastic post.

I'd heard there were 'cues' and signals with the fan sometime back but never seen a demonstration. Though I wonder, like Marguerite, how much it would have been secret, and if everyone knew the language, then everyone knew your business.

But what fun to have for a time-traveller to go back and completely give the wrong signals.

Cassandra Samuels said...


I am sure there is a story in there somewhere. It would make for an amusing scene, wouldn't it?

If anyone has ever seen the Supersizers do the Regency there is a very funny scene where Sue goes to a bar to pick up a man using her fan. Let's just say it didn't work that well.

Elle Fynllay said...

And maybe it was a whole extension of body language...the come hither look with the appropriate fan wave.

You have me thinking now Bronwyn, of the Chinese/ Japanese angle. Definitely a different cultural emphasis and completely new form of dialogue.

Cassandra Samuels said...

Hi Alison and Christina

I'm so glad you liked the article.

Alison the Parisian fan maker that I mention in the article J-P Duvelleroy was one such person. Although I would think most fans of the time were imported from the trade routes and mission towns from China and Japan to Europe, most likely through the East India Company.

Cassandra Samuels said...


Thank you for popping in and leaving a comment. I'm glad it introduced you to the language of the fan. I only put a few of the most common ones here but there are many more movements and phrases. If you want to know more just click on the links at the bottom.

Cassandra Samuels said...

Hi Elle

I think you might be right in thinking it is an extension of body language.

Anonymous said...

I love this stuff! Why did it die out?! Very handy but lovely way to communicate. So romantic... sigh...


Kat Sheridan said...

What a wonderful and informative article, and thank you for the links! I can absolutely see a romantic Regency comedy with a fan playing a major part in a misunderstanding, especially if one of the parties can't spell!

Dana said...

Wow! I have a hard time getting communication right in our contemporary setting...I'm just wondering how badly I'd screw up the 'fan' communication of the Regency period--LOL! I'd start a war, accept an unfortunate proposal, and give away a fortune...all because I was just trying to cool my flushed face--LOL!

Bronwyn said...

What a fan-tastic article! (I can't believe no one threw that in there!)

I didn't even know this existed and I read and write Regency so thanks for the education. I can hear the minds of writers everywhere ticking over and wondering how to add it in to their books =)

And seriously. They're men! Daft at the best of times...

Well done Cassandra!

Cassandra Samuels said...

Hi Malvina

Thanks for coming to visit. I'm not sure why it died out will have to find out about that.

I know some women today still keep them in their handbags for the odd hot flush although usually the fans are motorised and need a battery to work.

Cassandra Samuels said...

Hi Eleni

So happy you came by and glad you enjoyed the article.I'd love to see a time-travel with a fan scene. It would be very amusing.

Cassandra Samuels said...

Hi Kat, Dana and Bron

I've read books where fans are used but usually to hit someone with, which is communication of a sort I suppose. LOL.

I would love to be a fly on the wall when it all goes wrong. Love it!

Christina Courtenay said...

Very interesting post! I have lots of Japanese fans, but only use them as wall decorations - guess I'll have to rethink that :)

Cassandra Samuels said...

Thank you to everyone who dropped in this week. What a great response. I bet you can't wait to find out what is on next weeek!

Anonymous said...

this was very enlightning, thank you for sharing.
I devilishly love that a poor speller could find themselves in all sorts of *soup* if they sent the wrong or conflicting message to the wrong person.

Cassandra Samuels said...

Hi Mary

It brings up all sorts of comical scenes doesn't it? maybe we should have a scene writing comp where we all try and write the funniest fan scene.

There is a hilarious bit in the show Supersizers go Regency where Sue tries to atract some men in a bar with a fan. So funny. And no, she wasn't very successful.

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Thanks Hand Fans. I am so glad that you enjoyed the post. Pop over anytime.

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