The Art of the Fan

~ The Art of the Fan ~ Presented at HRR 2018

Opinion is divided whether a secret language of hand fans actually existed and was practiced, or whether such an implied art was simply a marketing ploy by the fan makers. Such a language would have a number of impracticalities—does the recipient actually know what you are trying to communicate? How does one keep the rest of the gathering from seeing your signals? And if everyone knows about it, it’s hardly a secret… More likely, the fan was used to convey general flirtation and disdain via body language – much like a quizzing glass or snuff box might be used among the gentlemen.

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 for use were written on the fans.


“Fanology or the Ladies Conversation Fan” designed by Charles Francis Badini, printed in 1797

As stated in the written instructions, the letters of the alphabet were divided into five hand positions (with no letter J).

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

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.


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.

“The Ladies Telegraph, for Corresponding at a Distance” designed by Robert Rowe, 1798

Ladies might well have devised signals among their friends, of course, for such things as asking for help disengaging from a tiresome gentleman (text me!) or to urgently summon a friend over to gaze upon the object of their affections. That said, here are a few tidbits from the pamphlets of fan-makers. According to Duvelleroy (Parisian fan makers since 1827):

  • Twirling the fan in the left hand – “we are watched.”
  • Carrying the fan in the right hand in front of her face – “follow me.”
  • Covering the left ear with the open fan – “do not betray our secret.”
  • Drawing the fan through the hand – “I hate you.”
  • Drawing the fan across the cheek – “I love you.”
  • Touching the tip of the fan with the finger – “I wish to speak to you.”
  • Letting the fan rest on the right cheek – “yes.”
  • Letting the fan rest on the left cheek – “no.”
  • Opening and shutting the fan – “you are cruel.”
  • Dropping the fan – “we will be friends.”
  • Fanning slowly – “I am married.”
  • Fanning rapidly – “I am engaged.”
  • Touching the handle of the fan to the lips – “kiss me.”


Other sources imply the following:

To hold it to the left ear.
I want you to leave me alone.

To change it to the right hand.
You are imprudent.

To throw the fan. Or lower, open, until pointing at the ground.
I hate you.

To move it with the right hand.
I love another.

To let slide it on the cheek.
I want you.

To hold it closed.
Do you love me?

Tip to heart. I love you.

Tip to chin. You annoy me.

Tip to forehead. You are out of your mind.

To touch the edge of the hand fan with the fingers.
I want to talk to you.

To open and close it.
You are cruel.

To leave it hanging.
We will continue being friends.

To open it slowly.
Wait for me.

Semiclose to the right and then the left.
I can’t.

Opened, covering the mouth.
I am single.

Further resources: , History of the Fan by G. Woolliscroft Rhead, 1902, 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.


Academy for the Instruction in the Use of the Fan

by Joseph Addison
(Published in the London Spectator, 1711)

Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes do more execution with them. To the end therefore that ladies may be entire mistresses of the weapon which they bear, I have erected an academy for the training up of young women in the Exercise of the Fan, according to the most fashionable airs and motions that are now practiced at court. The ladies who carry fans under me are drawn up twice a-day in my great hall, where they are instructed in the use of their arms, and exercised by the following words of command: Handle your Fans, Unfurl your Fans, Discharge your Fans, Ground your Fans, Recover your Fans, Flutter your Fans.

By the right observation of these few plain words of command, a woman of a tolerable genius, who will apply herself diligently to her exercise for the space of but one half year, shall be able to give her fan all the graces that can possibly enter into that little modish machine.

But to the end that my readers may form to themselves a right notion of this Exercise, I beg leave to explain it to them in all its Parts.


When my female regiment is drawn up in array, with every one her weapon in her hand, upon my giving the word to handle their fans, each of them shakes her fan at me with a smile, then gives her right-hand woman a tap upon the shoulder, then presses her lips with the extremity of her fan, then lets her arms fall in an easy motion, and stands in a readiness to receive the next word of command. All this is done with a close fan, and is generally learned in the first week.


The next motion is that of unfurling the Fan, in which are comprehended several little flirts and vibrations, as also gradual and deliberate openings, with many voluntary failings asunder in the fan itself, that are seldom learned under a month’s practice. This part of the Exercise pleases the Spectators more than any other, as it discovers on a sudden an infinite number of Cupids, altars, birds, beasts, rainbows, and the like agreeable figures, that display themselves to view, whilst every one in the regiment holds a picture in her hand.


Upon my giving the word to discharge their Fans, they give one general crack that may be heard at a considerable distance when the wind sits fair. This is one of the most difficult parts of theExercise; but I have several ladies with me, who at their first entrance could not give a pop loud enough to be heard at the further end of a room, who can now discharge a fan in such a manner, that it shall make a report like a pocket-pistol. I have likewise taken care (in order to hinder young women from letting off their fans in wrong places or unsuitable occasions) to shew upon what subject the crack of a fan may come in properly: I have likewise invented a fan, with which a girl of sixteen, by the help of a little wind which is inclosed about one of the largest sticks, can make as loud a crack as a woman of fifty with an ordinary fan.


When the fans are thus discharged, the word of command in course is to ground their Fans. This teaches a lady to quit her fan gracefully when she throws it aside in order to take up a pack of cards, adjust a curl of hair, replace a falling pin, or apply her self to any other matter of importance. This part of the Exercise, as it only consists in tossing a fan with an air upon a long table (which stands by for that purpose) may be learned in two days time as well as in a twelvemonth.


When my female regiment is thus disarmed, I generally let them walk about the room for some time; when on a sudden (like ladies that look upon their watches after a long visit) they all of them hasten to their arms, catch them up in a hurry, and place themselves in their proper stations upon my calling outRecover your Fans. This part of the Exercise is not difficult, provided a woman applies her thoughts to it.


The Fluttering of the Fan is the last, and indeed the master-piece of the whole Exercise; but if a lady does not misspend her time, she may make herself mistress of it in three months. I generally lay aside the dog-days and the hot time of the summer for the teaching this part of the Exercise; for as soon as ever I pronounce Flutter your Fans, the place is fill’d with so many zephyrs and gentle breezes as are very refreshing in that season of the year, tho’ they might be dangerous to ladies of a tender constitution in any other.

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 which 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 the lover was at a sufficient distance from it. I need not add, that a fan is either a prude or coquet according to the nature of the person who bears it. To conclude my letter, I must acquaint on that I have from my own observations compiled a little treatise for the use of my scholars, entitled The Passions of the Fan; which I will communicate to you, if you think it may be of use to the public…

P.S. I teach young gentlemen the whole art of gallanting a fan.