The Language of Fans

April 19, 2023

Over the years much has been made of the ‘use’ or ‘language’ of the fan.  In the Spectator, a periodical published regularly in London between March 1711 and December 1712, a letter appeared explaining ’the exercise of the fan’. Although written with wit and humour the letter describes women using fans with ‘an amorous flutter’, I imagine this happened. The daily publication of the Spectator was not unreasonably estimated to have a readership of one tenth of London’s population: therefore, it is quite possible the journal promoted the fashion for young ladies to express an emotion by a ‘flutter’ of their fan.


In March1797 the fan maker Robert Clarke, who was admitted to the Company in 1756,marketed a fan with the title ‘Fanology or the Ladies Conversation Fan’.  With the comic dramatist and poet Charles Badini he produced a rather stylish fan, one printed with rows of letters, numbers and directions  –  ‘Eight different motions of the fan to express the whole alphabet ……’ and having familiar questions and answers on the reverse.  The fan must have sold well since by August of the same year William Cock, a fan maker who joined the Company in 1778, put his version of ‘Fanology or the Speaking Fan’ on the market.


Some eighty or one hundred years later a leaflet titled ‘The Language of the Fan’ was issued by the London branch of Duvelleroy, the famous Parisian fan making company.  The fan maker Robert Gleeson, who was admitted to the Company in 1879, was working with Duvelleroy at the same time.  Published as a gimmick, the leaflet showed young ladies a number of methods of communication via a motion of their fan.  For example, drawing the fan across the cheek indicated ‘I love you’ and to fan slowly showed ‘I am married’.  This language is the one that is found attractive today.  

‘The Language of the Fan’ by the London branch of Duvelleroy front cover