A school for female schemers

The 18th century, called the century of women, was the age of sophisticated social games. What item was better suited to flirting than an amusing, coquettish fan? Thus, a secret “language of fans” was created, one to be mastered by every young woman with ballroom ambitions.
In 1711, the English writer Joseph Addison published a satire about the Fan Academy in the journal The Spectator, in which he openly said that a woman without a fan is like a man without a skewer. In the ballrooms, the „whispers of fans, the rustle of fans and disputes of fans” were to be heard everywhere. Often it was so complicated that well-born ladies were offered help in mastering this difficult art.
Therefore, in 1774 the Queen of Sweden, Luiza Mirck, established the Order of the Fan, in which the most eminent ladies were to learn and guard the secrets of this unusual female weapon that would enable them to flirt with lovers and imperceptibly seduce other men in front of their spouses. The item itself was excellent for this type of social game. The secret lay in the method of movement. The fan revealed the social status of the person who used it, and arranging it in a particular manner served to express intentions and feelings. Love confessions or details of meeting places were written on it, thereby acting as an intermediary between lovers.
The French writer and observer of ballroom lifestyle Madame de Staël (1766–1817) claimed that by wielding and playing with the fan, the sophistication of ladies is appreciated and if beautiful and chic women were not able to hold it gracefully and elegantly, they let themselves in for tremendous ridicule.
At the end of the 18th century, a new type of fan appeared – a “conversational” one. Popular especially in Italy, France, England and Spain, it was used until the 20th century. By revealing the appropriate sequence of numbers hidden in the landscape, dialogues were created. Some conversational fans contained symbolic pictures that formed well-thought-out allusions. In 1795 in Paris, the telegraph fan started to be used, concealing characters which were then orchestrated into words.

In Spain, especially in Andalusia, at the turn of the 18th century, a universal “fan language” was also created. In the Spanish variant, the abanico movement (from the Spanish word for “fan”) transformed into a complicated language, full of passion and allusions, in which lovers could express their anger, promises and longing. It was based on the correct arrangement of the fan in four directions, with five different variants. One alphabetic character was assigned to the abanico movement.
In Poland, the first mentions of the language of fans appeared in 1823 in Kurier dla Płci Pięknej [The Courier for the Fair Sex], where it was written that the only possibility for a woman to acquaint herself with an admirer without compromising her reputation was to use the „fan language”. In turn, in a passage from “Sir Thaddeus” we read that Telimena...
„[...] in her hands she twirled a fan for mere pastime,
for it was not hot; the gilded fan
as it waved spread around it a torrential rain of sparks.”
With the advent of World War I, the role of women and the prevailing customs changed. Women preferred to fight for their rights, rather than „to devise schemes hidden behind feather constructions”.
... the lady unexpectedly appeared on the balcony in the great ballroom and, fanning her face steadily, she said: „I will come soon ...” Suddenly, misled by a premonition, she touched a tortoiseshell gem with her left hand ... We are being watched... Unable to withstand the uncertainty, she closed her fan, presenting it so that the lover enjoying himself in the room noticed ... she asked uncertainly: Do you love me? Without receiving a reply, she closed and opened the fan nervously, conveying to the wooer: You are cruel! Not having achieved the desired effect, she changed her tactic ... with very slow fan movements she showed: You are indifferent to me. The man still did not answer her efforts, so she made the last desperate attempt ... she began to open the fan with her left hand, expecting that he would understand the meaning of the gesture: he would come and talk to her ... she had waited for so long... However, after a while, when her chosen one had not moved, had not even favoured her with a glance, she ostentatiously threw her fan behind her, shouting inwardly: I hate you! She went out, escorted by the compassionate glances of women and surprised ones of men, leaning on the shoulder of her unsuspecting husband...

Elaborated by: Kinga Śliwa (Editorial Team of Malopolskas Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Sławomir Kosieliński, Spojrzenie zza wachlarza, „Wiedza i Życie”, vol. 1 (1997);
Stanisław Gieżyński, Wachlarz — kobiece berło (2010): www.weranda.pl.

See the 18th-century women’s fan in the collection of Małopolska’s Virtual Museums.
Read about the history of the fan.