The secret language of antique hand fans...

There is something about antique hand fans (eventail in French)that I adore and the more that I read about them, the more interested I become.

I found a fabulous one yesterday that dates back to the 1880's and am sure that it could tell a tale or two.

In earlier times hand fans were used to communicate. And in fact, the role of the fan was not only for cooling, or as a fly swatter or fire-bellows.

It was also the supreme instrument of silent communication.

As Sir Richard Steele, in the “Tatler” of 4 August 1709, wrote: “You may observe in all public Assemblies the sexes seems to separate themselves and to attack each other with eye-shot, that is the time when the fan, which is the armour of woman, is of most use in her defence, for our minds are constructed by the waving of that little instrument, and our thoughts appear in composure or agitation according to the motion of it.”

In earlier times, an infinite variety of meaning could be found in the motion and flutter of a hand fan. Some examples:

Carrying in the right hand:You are too willing

Carrying in the left hand, open:Come and talk to me

Carrying in the right hand, in front of the face:Follow me

Carrying in the left hand, in front of the face:Desirous for acquaintance

Clasping the hands under the open fan:Forgive me, I pray you

Cover the left ear with the open fan:Do not betray our secret

Drawing through the hand:I hate you

Drawing across the cheek:I love you

Drawing across the eyes:I am sorry

Drawing across the forehead:You have changed

Dropping the fan:We will be friends

Fanning slowly:I am married

Fanning quickly:I am engaged

Gazing pensively at the shut fan:Why do you misunderstand me?

Letting it rest on the right cheek:Yes

Letting it rest on the left cheek:No

Placing behind the head:Do not forget me

With the little finger extended:Goodbye

Open and shut:You are cruel

Open wide:Wait for me

Placing it on the left ear:I wish to get rid of you

Presented shut:Do you love me?

Presenting a number of sticks, fan apart, opened:At what hour?

Shut fully-opened fan very slowly:I promise to marry you

Shut fan held to the heart:You have won my love

Shut fan resting on the right eye:When may I be allowed to see you?

Threaten with the shut fan:Do not be so imprudent

Touching the unfolded fan in the act of waving:I long always to be near you

Touching tip with finger:I wish to speak to you

Twirling in the left hand:I love an other

With handle to lips:Kiss me

I am not so sure that the silent language is for me and am sure that had I been alive in the 1880's a fan may have landed me in all kinds of mischief but in the other hand may have been easier than replying in French.

i.e. how many languages do you know where you can say I love you and then add an additional word and it means I like you a lot

Je t'aime = I love you
Je t'aime bien - I like you a lot

On that note I am off to do my French homework,
L x
p.s. If anyone wants to practise, I have the antique and also fabulous French fan listed in my shop....


  1. Very interesting history of the fan! If I lived back then I would probably forget all those rules and send mixed messages! Thanks for sharing! I love your blog!

  2. Very interesting. Perhaps you've intrigued my writer's mind into work. Thanks!

  3. Fantastic post! So interesting, Have a sweet day!

  4. Love the blog!

  5. What a great post...and how neat is it that all those small actions have a meaning!! All the best,Chrissy

  6. In the movie The Duchess of Langeais, the Duchess holds a fan in one scene and waves it in the fashion of saying "I am engaged." Actually, she is MARRIED and having an affair, in an ironic way, engaged to her lover. The movie takes place in 1870's...

  7. Bonjour LeeAnn,
    What an interesting history of fans. Some of them are so beautiful. I'l with you if I had lived during the time fans were popular I would have been in one pickle after the other.
    Have a fabulous week,

  8. Isn't it such a shame these beautiful things went out of fashion! Leigh

  9. I love this post! I love fans! I am saving this post! The meanings are so beautiful. I came across some beautiful cream fans at the flea market. I love to collect them. Your is stunning L! ~lulu

  10. I just learned so much about fans...I actually have a collection of french fans in my powder room and had no idea that they were so many meanings attached to "fanning".
    So appreciate the subtleties of "Je t'aime" which in French carries such a strong committed meaning rather the the casually expressed I love you in the States. I have never said Je t'aime to my parents as such feelings are shown rather than expressed in french society but tell my kids i Love you a dozen times a day at least..... Thank you for your kind comment on the new showroom. Will try to take pictures soon Au Revoir, Francine

  11. I love this post. Who knew there were so many meanings. I always love to see that peaking out from behind the fan move in period dramas. This makes me want to start carrying around a fan.

  12. I have learned something new today. When I see a fan I always think of the ladies flirting while peeking through the fan.

    Wonder what the gesture is for "hot flash," LOL!


  13. Oh my...I hope that I have not sent the wrong message when using my fan...I open it and move it quickly to arrange for air movement when having a flash!
    Who knows what I have my haste to cool down! LOL

  14. Oh I love it! Such a wonderful post, and also funny at times :)) Yes, it might have been easier to use it to suggest different things than actually saying them in French, haha
    Fabulous eventail you have there...

  15. Oh heck, I would be making all sorts of faux pas if I was let loose with a fan, clearly lots of study would need to be made of all the messages, or I would be in deep trouble. I have tagged you to take part in a blog memory if you want. Check out my latest post. xx

  16. What a fantastic post (sorry, I didn't realize it until I re-read my comment)!
    You really do your homework, thank you for passing on this interesting information. Now off to find myself a fan and brush up on the art of communication with one!
    Hope you have a great day!

  17. Hello, I'm still making my Pink Saturday visits. Thank you so much for stopping by and leaving a sweet comment. Love your pink post this week. Your blog is beautiful. I'll be back for sure.
    Blessings, Shirl
    Shirls Rose Cottage

  18. Hi Leeann,

    I enjoyed reading the history of the fan and one would have to remember to do things correctly.
    Such a pretty fan and amazing that it is from the 1880's.
    thanks for sharing and have a great week.


  19. Truly amazing this kind of language. I've never thought that hand fans were such an instrument of communication. Now we have freedom of speech, but less poetry. Thank you for the information.

  20. Everything is very open and very clear explanation of issues. Your website is very useful. Thanks for sharing. Our team of doctors can help you to get rid of your back pain in the shortest period of time.
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  21. I love this post...i just purchased my first fan and was searching for some history...interesting i will practise them all...merci ��

  22. I love this post...i just purchased my first fan and was searching for some history...interesting i will practise them all...merci ��


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