Fans: Language and History

With the approaching end of summer, soon our air conditioners will be shut off for the colder weather. Before Willis Carrier invented the modern air conditioner in 1902, people used fans to keep themselves cool. (Fun fact: my sister and her husband service and sell Carrier cooling and heating products.) Fans have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and art. The Incas used them. They have been created as works of art and cheap advertising. Both China and Japan have competing legends about the creation of the folding fan. Trade between the East and Europe bring this invention back to Europe in the fifteenth century.

According to an online exhibit put up by Purdue University and the Tippecanoe County Historical Association (Indiana), fans were the cell phones of the seventeenth century (1600’s). Fans developed their own language over time. Much could be communicated without saying a word. If the fan was carried in the right hand in front of one’s face, it meant, “Follow me.” A fan in the left hand said “I’m desirous of an acquaintance.” There were many other meanings based upon how a fan was held and used.  When a reader sees a lady learning deportment and etiquette, one of the things the student is learning this language. Even just trying to keep cool could convey a message. Fast fanning signified the person wasn’t available due to marriage or a betrothal.

It was at the RWA Beau Monde conference in Orlando this past summer where I learned about fan language in the Regency period. (See RWA 2017 – The Beau Monde Mini-Conference  https://louisebergin.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/rwa-2017-the-beau-monde-mini-conference/) Instantly I knew I would have to change the description of my current heroine’s fan gestures.  Originally I’d written:

“He’s caught your interest, has he?” Her friend giggled.
“Don’t be absurd!” Deirdre snapped her fan shut. That was a mistake. She’d lost her barrier, and he still looked at her with that infuriating grin. She turned her back on him to glare at Kate. “I should know who is a guest in my own home.”

When the heroine snaps her fan shut, she is actually saying “I wish to speak to you.” I missed a wonderful opportunity to insert some research without writing an info dump about fan language. Revised, the section now reads:

“He’s caught your interest, has he?” Her friend giggled.
“Don’t be absurd!” Deirdre snapped her fan shut. That was a mistake. She’d lost her barrier, and he still looked at her with that infuriating grin. She turned her back on him to glare at Kate. “I should know who is a guest in my own home.”
“He has caught your interest.” She pointed at the closed fan in Deirdre’s left hand. “Why else would your fan signal ‘I desire an acquaintance?’”
She stared in horror at the fan she carried. Kate was right! Unknowingly Deirdre’s gestures had made her fan’s language reveal a desire she didn’t have. She unfurled it and vigorously waved it before her suddenly hot face, clearly stating I’m unavailable to anyone who might be looking. “Who is he?”

The revision added 75 words and unobtrusively (I hope!) inserted my research. Of course, Deirdre is interested. This is the hero who has caught her eye.

It was great attending the Beau Monde conference. Sometimes an author doesn’t even know what she doesn’t know. Research workshops and books can add depth to your story by making your character come alive in her world.

Souvenir fan purchased by my daughter in Venice, Italy

Link to online fan exhibit from Purdue University and Tippecanoe County Historical Association (Indiana)

http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~salvo/@SEA/exhibit/index.asp

 

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