The fan was a staple of the fashionable lady’s wardrobe since the Elizabethan period. By the 18th century, fans were incredibly popular, and users were devising playful ways of using them for silent communication – most importantly, for flirting.
It’s impossible to know how many men and women genuinely attempted to master and deploy the ‘language of the fan’, especially because many different systems were described.
An edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1740 explained how various motions of the fan were used to represent letters of the alphabet, while other methods – including one publicised by a French fan-maker – assigned messages to particular gestures.
These included touching the tip of the fan with a finger (‘I wish to speak to you’), twirling the fan with the left hand (‘we are watched’) and drawing it across the cheek (‘I love you’). Whatever the case, by the Georgian era the idea women were ‘armed with fans as men with swords’ was already a common cause for amusement.