The 18th century was the heyday of the fan. It was an essential accessory in a stuffy, crowded ballroom. Fans were made in every medium: ivory, painted silk and paper, lace, chicken skin (a very fine kid) and so forth. Louis XVI of France even gave his queen, Marie Antoinette, a diamond encrusted fan as a wedding present. There were fans for every occasion, and they were one of the earliest tourist souvenirs, painted or printed with picturesque landscapes and topical allusions. At this time they were usually about eight or nine inches long.
However fashionable your fan, you would not be considered elegant unless you held it in the right way. A lady might take snuff genteely, use her handkerchief daintily, and smile with refinement, but nonetheless she would be laughed at if she used her fan in a bourgeois manner. On the other hand, as was said of George III's queen Charlotte, even the plainest woman could become attractive if she used her fan graciously.
Young ladies were therefore instructed on the proper ways to handle their fan. For example, Matthew Towle's Young Gentleman and Lady's Private Tutor devoted several pages to the subject, and portraits of the period show ladies holding their fans in one or other of Towle's recommended positions.
The Language of the Fan
But 18th century ladies used the fan for more than keeping cool: they used it as a form of expression. More than any other article of fashion, the fan became part of a lady's body language. Supposedly, there even existed a 'language of the fan' whereby ladies could send messages across a room without saying a word. To use this language, it was essential to know your right from your left! For example:
Twirl in left hand
We are watched
I love another
I want to speak with you
I hate you
I want to be rid of you
Whether the stories of a language of the fan are true is likely to remain a mystery, as period sources make no reference to it. What we can be certain of, however, is that the fan became an intrinsic part of a lady's body language. It could reveal (or conceal) the whole range of emotions. There are many references to this in English literature:
What daring bard shall e'er attempt to tell
The powers that in this little engine dwell?
What verse can e'er explain its various parts
Its numerous uses, motions, charms and arts?
Its shake triumphant, its virtuous clap,
Its angry flutter, and its wanton tap.
The Art of Dancing, Soame Jenyns (1729)
So shall each passion by the fan be seen
From noisie anger to the sullen spleen
The Fan, John Gay (1713)
The ladies "have but little talk and the main conversation is the flutter of the fans."