Mass Historia
Hints, Tips and Musings on Living History and Vintage Dance
RSS Feed
The Gentleman's Page
About Mass Historia
Social Daunce Irregulars
Art Deco Society
Join the Dance & History mailing list
E-mail Address


« Keep informed with RSS | Main | Look Mah, I'm on TeeVee »

Pet Peeve--The Language of the Fan

It never seems to fail: when a docent or re-enactor group decides to do something on "Victorian Etiquette", they haul out "The Language of the Fan".

For those wondering whereof I speak, here is one of many places it is uncritically repeated

The notion is that there was this universally understood form of semaphore which was somehow used to convey secret love messages between young ladies and young gentlemen.

Of course, the fan can be a very eloquent communication tool. It can be snapped to indicate irritation, or looked over flirtatiously, or generally used for emphasis in ways that one needs no code book to decipher. What I have never found however, in any 19th Century etiquette book or work of literature, is the formalized code that is so often repeated today.

And then, there is the utter illogic of it: for a code to work, both the sender and recipient have to know it. So, not only would Victorian girls need to memorize this stuff, but so would the boys. Everything I have ever discovered about Victorian men suggests that they had very little patience for the frillier bits of Victorian social ritual. When ladies were turning down the corners of visiting cards to indicate any number of things, gentlemen were just leaving their cards and being done with it. From the frequent complaints on the subject, it was hard enough to get men to put down their cigars and come in from the veranda to dance with the ladies. Getting them to memorize a code book would be asking one too many things of the often grumpy Victorian male.

And finally, the Civil War demonstrated on numerous occasions that if you want to keep a secret, don't use semaphore to transmit it. IF this code existed and Victorian girls memorized it, and tried to use it to convey secret love messages to a boy who probably hadn't bothered to learn it, the chances would be good that the disapproving matron across the room HAD memorized it and would read it far better than any clueless man.

I honestly don't know what the original source of this persistent myth was. I have a recollection, which I haven't been able to verify, that it may have appeared as a "trial balloon" in a ladies magazine in the 1870s--or perhaps as a gimmick to sell fans.

The best that can be said about it though, is that it MAY have been mentioned in a period source, but there is no evidence that I have found that would suggest that it was ever put into real practice. It would appear that it never caught on.

I would strongly suggest that those who want to present information on Victorian etiquette spend their energies on more pervasive and important (but less cute) things like introductions, visiting, proper dress etc.

A quick PS. My skepticism towards the language of the fan does not extend to "The language of flowers". This was not a code that had to be delivered and deciphered "on the fly". People on both ends had time to pull the book off the wall and figure out what those begonias meant--and I have found references to the Language of the Flowers in the etiquette books.



What about the "Language of the parasol"? I would love to see the Wright Brotheresque flapping of sunshades in the afternoon. What about the "Language of the Hot Air Balloon", wherein you fly over a young ladies house in a dirigable and secrectly tell her you love her. Ah, those were the days. (And it's still hard to get the gentlemen off the veranda for a dance.)

Hello! Language of the Fan and Language of the Cigar were both published in period magazines as a funny parody of flirting. Tee hee, Victorian rib splitter. I suspect the parasol one is a more recent parody, based on language of the fan. I have not seen a Victorian period one, and have only found it on parasol sales web sites. The language of the flowers, and also flower symbolism is ancient in origin, much beloved by Victorians.
Love your site!

Maybe the parasol and fan language together led to the saying about mixed signals?

I must admit I was a goon for practicing and looking up the language before I came upon this site. After reading it I laughed at how I was thinking along the same lines but I went on oblivious, having fun. ^.^ To think I was going to force my sisters to learn it before going to an up coming ball! How silly I am. ^^