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The Secret Language of the Victorian Fan

Let’s be honest here.

There’s something exquisitely graceful about a beautiful, well-dressed lady waving her fan bashfully.

With uses ranging from the practical to the symbolic, fans have been playing the part of the link between cultures for thousands of years.

They can keep you cool in hot weather, serve in religious ritual, display sophistication and wealth, or function as an advertising medium. Perhaps the most enduring role of the handheld fan is as the symbol of wealth or Royalty, which stretches as far back as the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylon and continues even to this day.

However, there’s one lesser-known fact about fans that you probably haven’t heard of before.

Fans had and, to this day, still have their very own distinct language!

As it turns out, Regency and Victorian Era ladies were experts at it!

And today, I’m going to walk you through this unique code of courting, flirting and secret messages!

The Code of Fans

Carrying the fan, open, in the left hand: “Come and talk to me.”

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.”

Drawing the fan through the hand: “I hate you.”

Drawing the fan across the cheek: “I love you.”

Presenting the fan shut: “Do you love me?”

-1886 feather opera fans and satin painted fan

Twirling the fan in the left hand: “We are watched.”

Twirling the fan in the right hand: “I love another.”

To fan very slowly: “I am married.”

To fan very quickly: “I am engaged.”

To put the handle of the fan to the lips: “Kiss me.”

To open the fan wide: “Wait for me.”

-Vallotton, Félix Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

To place the fan behind the head: “Do not forget me.”

To do so with the little finger extended: “Goodbye.”

Carrying the fan in the right hand and in front of the face: “Follow me.”

To press the half-opened fan to the lips: “You may kiss me.”

Clasping the hands under the open fan: “Forgive me.”

To cover the left ear with the open fan: “Do not betray our secret.”

To hide the eyes behind the open fan: “I love you.”

To shut the full open fan very slowly: “I promise to marry you.”

Drawing the fan across the eyes: “I am sorry.”

Touching the tip of the fan with the finger: “I wish to speak to you.”

Number of sticks shown: Corresponding hour to meet.

Placing the fan near the heart: “You have won my love.”

-Eva Gonzales, Drawing, 43 x 28 cm, 1869, (Minneapolis Institute of Arts (United States))

Oh dear, how very exciting!

I’ve always been extremely interested in secret codes and this special use of such an unassuming item makes my senses tingle!

Now, doesn’t a heroine who uses this language deserve her own story? And a Duke?

Hmm….

Written by Patricia Haverton

  • Hmm. I would never, ever be able to memorize all these codes! I was aware of the “language of fans” but not in such detail. I have always wondered, however, if the gentlemen had them memorized, too? Very complex!

    • Well, it was quite useful if you wanted to get yourself a date so, I bet those strapping young lads were aware of the code too! 😉

  • How very fascinating to learn there is a language involving the fan. And here I thought it was just for cooling off. You truly learn something new every day. Thank you very much for sharing this information with us Ms. Haverton.

  • I knew there was a secret language, but I didn’t know the code. I guess with all the restrictions on public behavior, a secret code was needed. Thanks for meaning of each movement. I love the number of sticks showing for when to meet. So much communication without saying a word!

  • That was very interesting. It makes me think of that movie The Princess Diaries when Julie Andrews character was trying to teach Princess Mia the art of the fan. I found it quite interesting and much of what she taught her was in your article.

  • Oh lord I would be in such trouble as I could never remember all those codes. Thanks for the delightful look into the world of fans.

  • I did know that a fan could be used to Send messages but did know all the meanings thanks for the meanings but how did they remember them thanks for an interesting Item. Norah.

  • That’s a lot of codes to remember! No wonder the girls had to be trained thoroughly before being presented to the Ton!

  • The conduct of the Bon Ton of those eras was so rigid, they HAD to invent another way of communicating! Very ingenious.

  • Oh My Patricia! How exciting! I love learning and especially learning about the Victorian Era. Interestingly, I was put into instant menopause at age 38 due to an emergency hysterectomy. I decided then and there that I would endure the end of my child-bearing years with as much dignity as possible by using very beautiful and elaborate handheld fans. These lovely items that my husband began purchasing for me, gave me a new sense of confidence and femininity that I had quickly lost after my surgery. I had no idea there was a special language of fans! Come to think of it, I now wonder if I may have given some members of the opposite sex mixed or misleading messages about me? Ooops! I hope not! Now, 21 years later, my sweet husband of 53 years is still presenting me with new fans several times a year, even though I no longer have moments of “glistening skin” or the possibility of “spontaneous combustion” as my dear husband used to describe my sensations. Thank you, Patricia, once again, for another view into the life of the Beau Monde. The only secret languages I had ever heard of prior to this was the language of Twins and the language of the incest survivors.
    ~~kay~~

  • Who would have thunk it not me. I wonder how many messages were erroneously sent, Can you imagine the havoc that would cause. Thank you for sharing nicely done

  • How very fascinating & so very practical in an era when social engagement was suffocated with rules. The number of sticks revealed the hour of meeting? How romantic. I have just two fans, one of which is small & made from sandalwood & still has a slight perfume when it is wafted in the air. The other has an oriental design painted on it & I have them as a reminder of my mother who did use fans but only because she became too hot during the summers in Shanghai, both before WW2 & after. Such a fond memory of her delicate ways. She also wore white gloves constantly whenever she went out of the house & dressed elegantly, especially once she found a job in an office processing the accounts very precisely.