It's very easy to find websites talking about the language of fans. It seems to be common knowledge that fashionable women across Europe in the eighteenth century had a ritualized system of fan signals, mainly to communicate with a lover or a suitor they were spurning. Personally, I've always wondered about it - because it seems like anyone not paying strict attention to their hands would find themselves sending embarrassing messages constantly. Well, today at my internship I was writing an essay on the history of the folding fan, and I took some time to look into the matter.
In the eighteenth century, writers have a habit of talking about women communicating through their fans.
The Spectator, 1711:
William Mountfort, Greenwich Park, Six Plays by Mr. Mountfort, vol. 1 (1720), 258:
John Winstanley, Poems Written Occasionally (1742), 35:
It's not until the 1790s that I can find an actual, codified method of fan communication. Charles Francis Badini designed a fan that was printed in 1797, titled "Fanology," that broke the alphabet into five groups of five (removing J) and explained five fan positions:
- Move fan with left hand to right arm.
- Move fan with right hand to left arm.
- Place fan against bosom or heart.
- Raise fan to mouth.
- Raise fan to forehead.
I can't find any of the original sources, but it's reported that eventailliste (fan-maker) Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy published a pamphlet on the language of the fan, which he had translated
from German, which was in turn a translation from Spanish; this pamphlet seems to be the source of the list you usually see when you find an article on fan language. It's generally represented as though it came out right after Fanology, but I think it's more likely to be later in the Victorian era. I can find references from travelogues of the 1860s through the 1880s to the fan language of young Spanish women, who were kept mostly away from young men and needed secret ways of conducting romance with them, and it's written about as though it was only a Spanish phenomenon. The misinformation starts to spread in Aesthetic Physical Culture, by Oskar Guttmann, 1884:
Not only is he incorrect in attributing "a genuine fan-language" to the eighteenth century, fans continued to be popular through the Revolution and in the nineteenth century all the way up to the "recent times" Guttmann refers to.
What seems most likely to me is that Duvelleroy's pamphlet was meant to be an advertisement for fans, using the exoticism of the Andalusian girls as a marketing device. It was copied in other texts, such as G. Wolliscroft Rhead's History of the Fan (1910), with the Spanish context intact. At some point they may have been copied without the context, which then this caused later readers of eighteenth century fiction, satire, manuals, etc. to read references to expressive fans with the idea that said expression was directly symbolic. An example of confused context is this site on fans, in which page 253 of Rhead's History is incorrectly quoted: the positions of the fan are the Fanology signals, here attributed to the Gentleman's Magazine of 1740 (giving it the eighteenth century backing) through Rhead - when Rhead is actually giving that attribution to a poem that finishes on the next page.
So, in conclusion: myth busted!
Here are a few examples of specific sites uncritically repeating the myth: A Cool Breeze, All Hand Fans, The Covent Garden Minuet Company.
A post on the Age of Steam blog staggeringly asserts that "whatever the historians say, I trust that the nineteenth century language of the fan was a form of communication fundamental to the romance of America’s Victorian Era." Even when a commenter points out that the fan language was specific to Spain, another uses Addison's Spectator article to "prove" its existence.
A post on Mass Historia takes exception to the myth.