Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Cryptic Communications of the Fluttering Fans

                Using jewels as a means of conveying covert messages was but one way of sending secret signals employed by our forbears. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a secret language developed that made use of a ubiquitous fashion accessory – the fan. 

An Autograph Fan

Fans were used for far more than simply keeping cool or swatting away the odd flying insect; there were mourning fans, fortune telling fans, autograph fans, riddle fans, political fans, programme fans and many, many more. 

French Fan c.1750

Opera and theatre fans may have been decorated with bars of music, lyrics or scenes from a play. Game fans bore the rules of a game, with a coloured border of playing cards. Fans were produced to celebrate royal births or marriages. Fans featuring portraits of favourite preachers, and verses and illustrations from the Bible enlivened Church services. 

Heavenly Fans

There were fans of starched lace, feathered fans, silk and taffeta fans, jewelled fans, kid leather fans, painted fans and printed fans, gold and silver fans, plain fans, fancy fans, paper fans, folding fans, fluttering fans; in short, fans of every sort, for every occasion, were everywhere. 

Cherubs and Fan

The fan could be used simply as a means of showing support for a cause, faction or party, just through the colours or an illustration, rather like those used today to display one’s support for a sports team or popular band, but there was another way that depended on how the fan was held and used. 

Frank Brangwyn - The Blue Fan - Silk

At its simplest, this could be something as obvious as holding a closed fan to the right cheek, conveying assent or ‘Yes’, and the reverse message, ‘No’ was sent by holding the closed fan to the left cheek. 

This Lady says Yes

Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator of June 27th 1711, says, 
Women are armed with Fans as men with Swords—and sometimes do more execution with them . . . 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 … I need not add that a Fan is either a Prude or Coquette according to the nature of the person who bears it!” 

Joseph Addison

As may be expected, this language quickly grew, with specific gestures used to send specific messages. A closed fan placed near the heart meant, ‘You have won my love’, a closed fan resting on the right eye meant, ‘When may I see you?’, the number of sticks folded out from the fan indicated the hour. Drawing a fan across the cheek said, ‘I love you’, drawing a closed fan through the hand said, ‘I hate you’. Clasping the hands beneath an open fan, ‘Please forgive me’; covering the left ear with an open fan, ‘Do not betray our secret.’ 

The Ubiquitous Fan

Closing the fan whilst fanning oneself slowly meant, ‘I am married’, doing the same whilst fanning oneself quickly meant, ‘I am engaged’, closing the fan quickly and impetuously meant, ‘I am impatient’, slowly and deliberately closing a fully opened fan meant, ‘I promise to marry you’. Dropping the fan, ‘I belong to you’, pressing a half-opened fan to the lips, ‘You may kiss me’, pressing a fully-opened fan to the lips, ‘I don’t trust you’, twirling the fan in the right hand, ‘I love another’, twirling the fan in the left hand, ‘We are being watched’. 

Fan Flirtation

The famous Parisian fan-maker, Maison Duvelleroy, even went so far as to present the purchasers of their new fans with a little printed card that gave a brief outline of the code. Which, of course, meant that everyone who bought a fan was in on the secret, and as Duvelleroy’s sold hundreds of thousands of fans, so hundreds of thousands of people made the secret code something less than secret. It was a gimmick, a selling point, and buyers love to believe that they are members of a small group of cognoscenti, belonging to an elite, select minority. 

Dutch Theatre Fan c.1730

Now if the whole of Europe is busy fluttering its fans, flapping and twirling and dropping the things across the continent, there will be occasions when a message got through, under the radar, so to speak, of an inattentive chaperon, but all in all, it was a bit of fun and not really meant to be taken seriously. It was not unlike modern B1ff or 1337-speak (again, LEET derives from ‘elite’, also a manifestation of a secret coding in-crowd), which can be impenetrable to teh n00bs, but is plain when U R pwnage & AYB. 


There were other fan-messaging languages that were used, the simplest of which had the letters of the alphabet printed onto the folds of the fan and all that needed to be done was to spell out words by displaying the individual letters, something which is, again, hardly secret when flashed across a crowded salon. It also implies a remarkably high level of eyesight in the gentlemen of old. 

The Parts of a Fan

A more contrived method is more akin to semaphore signalling, as the alphabet is split into five groups of five letters (‘J’ was omitted), with five movements within each of the five subdivisions – ABCDE FGHIK LMNOP QRSTU VWXYZ. These five movements were: 1 with the left hand to the right arm, 2 with the right hand to the left arm, 3 to the bosom, 4 to the lips and 5 to the forehead. Let’s say you wanted to send the word DEAR, so to begin, the fan is moved onto the right arm, signifying the first group of five letters (ABCDE), and then to the lips, signifying the fourth letter within that group. 

Try doing this with a fan ...

To make ‘E’, the fan is move back to the right arm, then to the forehead, signifying the fifth letter in the first group. ‘A’ is next, again in the first group, so it’s onto the right arm again, and the gesture is repeated to indicate the first letter of the group. Finally, ‘R’ is made by signalling the fourth group of letters, so the lips are touched with the fan, and then moving the fan onto the left arm indicates the second letter of that group. When the whole word has been spelled out, the fan is opened fully, to signal that the word has been completed. 

Ancient Greek Fan

Personally, I’d say a little written note, passed surreptitiously from hand to hand, would be far less bother than all this rigmarole, and far less open to misinterpretation, but then again, that lacks the underlying frisson of the forbidden.


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