“Flirtation” by Frédéric Soulacroix
You know those situations where you’re stuck outside at some event, say, a free concert in the park, and the heat is so crushing that you fold up a piece of paper and use it to swish a cool breeze over your face? That’s about the only time you see hand-held fans nowadays — as an arcane version of air conditioning. But fans weren’t always just functional; they used to be a prime vehicle for flirting as well.
Fans have been around pretty much since forever-ever (fourth century BCE in Greece), but it wasn’t until roughly the 18th century that they took on their coy character. Although some modern sources brush it off as a marketing ploy, historical evidence supports that there existed a language of the fan used for courting in, particularly, England and Spain. For example Daniel Shafer’s 1877 etiquette manual entitled Secrets of Life Unveiled reports that carrying your fan in your left hand means you are “desirous of an acquaintance,” while twirling it in your left hand means, “I love another.”
Even if the language of the fan wasn’t so exact as this source claims, there’s no doubt that these painted pieces of parchment or silk were used to be coy. A 1882 article from the New York Times, for example, speaks of a character from a book of the era, saying “Flavia was, however, an adept at the adroit manipulation of the fan and even if it proved an ‘engine of small force in love,’ it served admirably to conceal the blush which suffused her cheeks when Squire Western broke one of his favorite jokes…”
Their flirtatious air aside, fans were also key in circulating air to wash away the heat of the summer. Though they’re pretty much defunct for both uses now, would you like to see fans retake their place as a way to win one a summer love? Let us know!