Emma is a museum professional, working for a variety of heritage organizations, she has a passion for history, conservation and literature.
Hand fans have existed since antiquity. Some of the earliest examples can be seen in ancient Egyptian artwork. The folding hand fan originated in Japan and was introduced into Europe in the 16th century. Since its beginning, the hand fan has been more than a practical means of cooling a person down: in Asia, it assumed an important ceremonial role; in Europe, it became a signifier of status, with elaborate designs and expensive materials showing both taste and wealth.
There is also a widely held belief that hand fans had another use besides just their practical application: that of conveying secret messages. It is believed that gestures and precise hand movements using fans constituted a secret language. In an age when women had to conform to strict rules of etiquette, it is believed that this secret language became an ideal way for a lady to discretely communicate with and flirt with her admirers. Although this sounds like an intriguing and romantic idea, is there any evidence that such a language existed?
Early Accounts of the 18th Century
By the 18th century, hand fans had become a popular and fashionable accessory and were seen frequently at social gatherings. Their frequent appearance became fodder for both satirists and romantic poets. In 1711 Joseph Addison wrote a satirical article in The Spectator advertising his school for ladies, the purpose of which was to instruct ladies in the proper use of the hand fan so that they "may be entire mistresses of the weapon which they bear." (View full article here.)
In 1742 the poet John Winstanley wrote:
“In Love’s soft Reign, the Sceptre is the Fan,
Woman is the Sovereign, and the Subject Man.
Her frowns and smiles its different motions show,
His hopes and fears from its impressions flow.”
Yet these references only suggest a subtle use of the fan to convey meaning. It was not until the end of the century that a more formalized method of hand fan communication was spoken of.
The Communication Hand Fans
In the late 1790s, Charles Francis Badini and Robert Rowe designed what they referred to as "Communication" hand fans. Badini named his “Fanology or the Ladies Conversation Fan” and Rowe named his “The Ladies Telegraph, for Corresponding at a Distance”. Printed instructions were written on the fans informing ladies how to use them.
How To Use the "Fanology" Fan
As stated in the written instructions the letters of the alphabet were divided into five hand positions (the letter J being excluded).
Position 1: Hold fan in left hand and touch the right arm = letters A - E.
Position 2: Hold fan in right hand and touch the left arm = letters F - K.
Position 3: Place the fan against the heart = letters L - P.
Position 4: Raise the fan to mouth = letters Q - U
Position 5: Raise the fan to forehead = letters V - Z
Read More From Owlcation
You would then use the same motions to indicate which number of the letter in each combination. So for example, if you wanted to spell S.O.S, for the letter S you would place your fan in position 4 and then place it in position 3, for the letter O, position 3 then position 4 and for S again, position 4 then position 3.
How to Use the "Ladies Telegraph"
The Ladies Telegraph seemed slightly easier to use. Twenty-six flaps corresponded to the letters of the alphabet and you would point to each letter to make a word. There was also a 27th flap to signify a full stop.
Fan Language in the 19th Century
In the 19th century, fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy printed a pamphlet that detailed further meanings to hand fan positions. They included:
Duvellory maintained that the pamphlet was a translation from a German text that was itself of earlier Spanish origin.
In addition to Duvelleroy’s pamphlet fan language was also published in contemporary books and magazines, for example, The Standard Beau Catcher: Containing Flirtations of the Fan, Eye, Glove, Parasol, Cigar, Knife and Fork, Handkerchief, Window Telegraphy, and Language of Flowers, circa 1890. The definitions were probably taken from Duvelleroy’s original pamphlet and there is certainly an element of tongue and cheek about them.
So, Did a Secret Language Exist?
It is uncertain whether secret hand fan communication was actually practiced or whether it was just a satirical and cynical ploy used by fan makers to sell their products. There are a number of impracticalities with the system.
Firstly, you have to assume that the recipient will understand the message. This would be difficult in a crowded assembly room, not to mention the embarrassment of the wrong person picking up your message. Also, the language is hardly secret if it is available for everybody to read about and discover. But most importantly what if you just wanted to use your fan to cool down!
It seems that if there was any form of communication involving fan movements it had more to do with body language and general flirtatious behavior, for example acting coy by hiding your face behind your fan, or elegantly lifting your fan to expose your dainty pale wrists. In any case, impracticable and as unlikely as it was, the secret language of the hand fan is certainly an idea that persists.
Sources and Further Reading
- History of the Fan by G. Woolliscroft Rhead, 1902
- Poems Written Occasionally by John Winstanley, 1742
- The Spectator Volumes 1-2 by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, 1836