Museum Musings - The Fan
One of our current exhibits includes a case with several of our fans, which brought to mind the thought that using a fan incorrectly in the 1700-1800's could send the wrong message. Did you know that fans had a language all their own? I found a wonderful letter to "The Spectator" - a briefly lived (1711-1712) daily publication founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in England. The Spectator aimed to "provide readers with topics for well-reasoned discussion, and to equip them to carry on conversations and engage in social interactions in a polite manner" The Spectator also had many readers in the American colonies - "James Madison read the paper avidly as a teenager. It is said to have had a big influence on his world view, lasting throughout his long life."
Wednesday, June 27, 1711, Mr. Addison writes:
"Mr. Spectator – Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometime 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, Flutter your fans – By the right observation of these few plain words of commands, 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…" 
(Photo does not contain the letter.)
While the fan offered a means to cool the air around her person, a lady’s fan also provided symbolism and was a societal tool. Some of the earliest European fans are seen in paintings of
Elizabethan ladies. Growing from novelty to popularity, by the mid-sixteenth century fans had become a fixture. Early fans were fixed; did not fold. The folding fan was introduced by the Far East and was rather expensive being made from vellum or paper. This also allowed an ease of elaborate painting and decoration, prompting a fan industry to begin in London (1709). [The fan in the photograph is on exhibit at the museum; believed to be Georgian. The sticks, guards and ribs are ivory.] Commemorative fans depicting an historic event were quite popular among the landed/aristocratic class with styles duplicating the fashion of the day. "Neoclassical fans, like the commemorative fan depicted above, lacked color and were generally bare of decoration, reflecting the simple white muslin dresses so popular during the Regency era. When dresses became more ornate and colorful again, fans followed the trend. They were highly prized for their aesthetics, for “in the ordinary fan of the present day Art has not strayed far from Nature.”
Like much of history, there are varied representations and/or interpretations. "Legend has it that by the time the Victorian era began fan gestures had been rigidly codified, wherein each movement and snap of the wrist carried a message fraught with meaning." Some experts, like Pierre Henri Biger) dispute this. Regardless, fans gradually changed from constant use to evening use only. (The fan shown in the photo belonged to Florence Jeffery, daughter of Anna Philips Jeffery [1820-1850]. Anna Philips Jeffery used this fan at her debut into polite society.) Their popularity and use experienced ebbs and flows because until they could be produced cheaply and in large quantities; they were still too expensive for the majority of society. It was not until the later 1800's to the early 1920's that fans were manufactured in large numbers carrying advertisements and given away as souvenirs that the more general public began using fans.
Remember, there are differing views within the antique fan profession about what the language of the fan might be.
Here is one site's listing of the language of the fan from Dr. Gelber, Assistant Professor of Acting at Texas Tech University.
1) THE FAN PLACED NEAR THE HEART: "You have won my love."
2) A CLOSED FAN TOUCHING THE RIGHT EYE: "When may I be allowed to see you?"
3) THE NUMBER OF STICKS SHOWN ANSWERED THE QUESTION: "At what hour?"
4) THREATENING MOVEMENTS WITH A FAN CLOSED: "Do not be so imprudent"
5) HALF-OPENED FAN PRESSED TO THE LIPS: "You may kiss me."
6) HANDS CLASPED TOGETHER HOLDING AN OPEN FAN: "Forgive me."
7) COVERING THE LEFT EAR WITH AN OPEN FAN: "Do not betray our secret."
8) HIDING THE EYES BEHIND AN OPEN FAN: "I love you."
9) SHUTTING A FULLY OPENED FAN SLOWLY: "I promise to marry you."
10) DRAWING THE FAN ACROSS THE EYES: "I am sorry."
11) TOUCHING THE FINGER TO THE TIP OF THE FAN: "I wish to speak with you."
12) LETTING THE FAN REST ON THE RIGHT CHEEK: "Yes."
13) LETTING THE FAN REST ON THE LEFT CHEEK: "No."
14) OPENING AND CLOSING THE FAN SEVERAL TIMES: "You are cruel"
15) DROPPING THE FAN: "We will be friends."
16) FANNING SLOWLY: "I am married."
17) FANNING QUICKLY: "I am engaged."
18) PUTTING THE FAN HANDLE TO THE LIPS: "Kiss me."
19) OPENING A FAN WIDE: "Wait for me."
20) PLACING THE FAN BEHIND THE HEAD: "Do not forget me"
21) PLACING THE FAN BEHIND THE HEAD WITH FINGER EXTENDED: "Goodbye."
22) FAN IN RIGHT HAND IN FRONT OF FACE: "Follow me."
23) FAN IN LEFT HAND IN FRONT OF FACE: "I am desirous of your acquaintance."
24) FAN HELD OVER LEFT EAR: "I wish to get rid of you."
25) DRAWING THE FAN ACROSS THE FOREHEAD: "You have changed."
26) TWIRLING THE FAN IN THE LEFT HAND: "We are being watched."
27) TWIRLING THE FAN IN THE RIGHT HAND: "I love another."
28) CARRYING THE OPEN FAN IN THE RIGHT HAND: "You are too willing."
29) CARRYING THE OPEN FAN IN THE LEFT HAND: "Come and talk to me."
30) DRAWING THE FAN THROUGH THE HAND: "I hate you!"
31) DRAWING THE FAN ACROSS THE CHEEK: "I love you!"
32) PRESENTING THE FAN SHUT: "Do you love me?"
Have fun Googling the "language of the fan!"
 Bowers, Terence. Universalizing Sociability: The Spectator, Civic Enfranchisement, and the Rule(s) of the Public Sphere. In Newman, Donald J., ed. (2005). The Spectator: Emerging Discourses, pp. 155-56. University of Delaware Press
 Ralph Ketcham, James Madison, A Biography, 1971, pp. 39-48
 Staff, Jane Austen's World, "The Language of the Fan." https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/tag/language-of-the-fan/