The Not-So-Subtle Art of the Conversation Fan
On the heels of my post about the language of flowers—where blooms were assigned meanings that “did the talking” during the Victorian age, comes a post about another love language all its own: fanology or, the art of using the hand fan as a means of conversation.
Those beautifully decorated fans we see women clutching in 18th and 19th century portraits, the ones we see ladies fluttering in movies of the same era? They weren’t just fashion accessories or a way to stay cool.
They were used to convey esoteric messages, too.
Well, sort of.
Way Back When
Hand fans go as far back as the ancient Greeks, where archaeological digs and ancient texts reveal they existed from at least the 4th century BC. In the 13th and 14th centuries, fans from the Middle East and the Byzantium Empire were brought to Europe by crusaders and refugees, respectively.
The folding fan we know today originated from China and Japan. Portuguese traders brought them to Europe in the 1500s. Because their gorgeous, intricate designs were only affordable to the upper echelons of society, fans were, from the beginning, symbols of wealth and good taste.
By the early 1700s, fans were a common women’s accessory all over Europe. It was de rigueur to carry them at small gatherings and large. What better way for a lady to keep cool among the company of so many?
But what about those secret messages?
There is some indication that a “language” between a lady and her suitor was going on in those crowded gatherings. Communication was all in the way a woman held her fan and used it to convey her feelings—shyness, love, even disinterest. This language was subtle, however. Coquetry was an art, and with a fan it could be executed by, say, coyly hiding her face as she looked away and blushed.
By the late 18th century, France had become the center of the folding fan. The French nobility commissioned elaborate examples with carved ribs of mother of pearl, painted paper, and other expensive components. Madam de Pompadour, mistress to King Louis XIV, reportedly owned one that featured ten painted miniatures and cuttings that resembled lace. It cost $30,000 and took nine years to make.
The Beginning of Conversation
Thanks to the shrewd ingenuity of two men, fans became known as a way to convey more complicated expressions at this time. It there was ever any complex, silent dialog going on with the hand fan, this is when it began.
Print designer Charles Francis Badini is credited with inventing Fanology or the Ladies Conversation Fan in 1797. A year later, Robert Rowe’s The Ladies Telegraph for Responding at a Distance did much the same: both created a formalized language by printing instructions on the fans themselves.
In Bandini’s Fanology, the letters of the alphabet were grouped to convey various hand positions (for example, letters A-E were position one, signaled by holding the fan in the left hand and touching the right arm.) There were five positions total. To convey the letter within the group, the same positions applied. For the letter B, the second position (as B is the second letter in the group) would have been used: holding the fan in the right hand and touching the left arm.
Yes, each letter had two signals. Communicating a word, not to mention a whole sentence, would have been tedious and required a lot of concentration.
Miss one position, and oops, the whole message was lost.
It helped that, on the reverse side, Bandini added various “shortcuts” for common questions and answers among lovers.
Rowe’s system seems a little easier. By pointing to a letter (printed at the top of each leaf), words and sentences could be conveyed relatively easily.
But therein was the problem: the messages weren’t secret at all. Anyone could see what the female sender was signaling. What if the wrong person got the message? And what of the gentleman? How was he to respond when conversation was only one-way?
The Victorian Take
In 1827, Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy established a fan-making business in Paris. Hand fans had fallen out of fashion after the French Revolution, but Duvelleroy was certain he could revive their popularity.
Two years later, a ball given by the Duchess of Berry at the Tuileries Palace was to be especially fortuitous for Duvelleroy. When it came time for the quadrille, all the ladies sported fans. The handheld accessory was on the comeback.
Duvelleroy eventually set up a shop in London’s fashionable New Bond Street and became known as the premiere maker of couture fans, introducing various patents and innovations over the next few decades.
In 1851, Duvelleroy would exhibit his array of fans at the Great Exhibition in London. He was rewarded for his efforts by taking the prize medal at the Crystal Palace and soon became the appointed supplier to Queen Victoria.
When his son Jules took over management of the London boutique, he devised a way to make fans even more popular among the ladies. He did it by publishing leaflets that brought “conversation” back to the lady's fan. In these publications, he defined the positions and their corresponding meanings, much like Bandini and Rowe had done fifty years before.
Creating so-called fan etiquette to sell more fans wasn’t nearly as romantic as the idea of the language of fans persisting through the decades, but the Victorians didn’t seem to mind.
Fans as Advertisement
Fans would continue on through the art nouveau period, featuring flowery images, sequins, and satin leaves. By the Roaring Twenties, fans were being made of lush ostrich feathers and were carried by flappers.
By the end of WWI, fans began to take on a different guise altogether. Cryptic messages between lovers was no more. Advertisers got in on the game, sometimes using a non-folding design as a medium for colorful ads and company logos. These types of fans were ideal to distribute for free, as they could be mass-produced cheaply from paper.
Advertisers ran the gamut, from high-priced perfumes and hotels, to bar soap and ice cream.
These days, the hand fan has fallen out of popularity again, but who’s to say it won’t reemerge again?
And while the secret language of fans was never really secret and was probably too difficult to execute in practice, the idea was likely fun while it lasted.
Tonya Mitchell is the author of A Feigned Madness. For more on her and her book, visit her website. To order her book about Nellie Bly and her 10-day undercover stay in an insane asylum in 1887, click here.
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