Saturday, October 10, 2020

Fanning the Romance


By Suzanne Norquist

Today, couples can text each other across a crowded room, and no one is the wiser. Not so in days gone by. There was the “Language of the Fan.” My son, who was part of a Civil War reenactment group, told me about it. A lady could send a covert message to her favorite soldier using her fan. Although, I have to wonder at the effectiveness.

In the late 1700s, a “Language of the Fan” or “Fanology” emerged. There were a couple of different ways this worked. Some fans operated like decoder rings, where the code was printed on the fan. Both the sender and receiver of messages needed to have the same code. Twenty-six different movements represented letters of the alphabet.

For example, the fan in the left hand touching the right arm could represent the letters A-E. A specific movement would indicate which letter. The fan in the right hand touching the left arm represented F-K, and so on.

A more general Language of the Fan seemed to be an extension of natural body language. No spelling involved. However, there appeared to be several ways to indicate the same message. I found numerous lists and a newspaper article with pictures (the October 17, 1891 edition of the Aspen Times). Each described the language a little differently.

“I love you” could have been demonstrated by touching a closed fan to the lips, or drawing the fan slowly across the cheek.

The picture from the article (above) shows a fan open to different degrees to show, “I love you” and closed to say, “I hate you.” Drawing the fan through the hand could also say, “I hate you.”

Holding a closed fan in the left hand in front of the face could mean, “I’d like to meet you.” Touching the tip of the fan with a finger indicates, “I must speak to you.” And carrying an open fan in the left hand says, “Come and talk to me.”

If the pictures above are the mirror image, the woman is carrying an open fan in her left hand, inviting conversation.

Although, a fan in the right hand in front of the face means, “Follow me.”

Are you confused yet?

Covering the left ear with an open fan conveys, “Do not betray our secret.” Is that the same as, “Take care, we are watched.” in the picture below?

Touching the fan against the left ear says, “Go away!” But the body language in the picture below says it all. No fan needed. “Leave me.”

I love this one—shaking a closed fan says, “You are very improper!” Again, all body language. No fan needed.

Even if the messages are easily understood, what if the wrong soldier takes its meaning. And how were the men to reply? They didn’t carry fans.

If all this isn’t enough, I found an article about the “Language of the Gloves” in the July 18, 1878 edition of the Colorado Springs Gazette.

The English girls have improved on the language of the fan and language of the handkerchief by devising a very copious vocabulary of the gloves, which for the benefit of American women, we beg to pirate from an English contemporary. It runs thus.

Drop a glove – Yes.

Crumple the gloves in the right hand – No.

. . .
Although I am entertained by the confusion in the Language of the Fan, how different is it than modern texting acronyms? Does LOL mean “laugh out loud” or “lots of love?” And are two hands pressed together praying or giving the high-five?

In all generations, young men and women find ways to connect, and for a time, the Language of the Fan may have been involved.


“Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her farther away?

For a Free Preview, click here:

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.

She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.


  1. Great post! There's lots of room for misinterpretation there for sure!

    1. Thank you. I can't even imagine the confusion this may have caused.

  2. wow! Very interesting. I've never heard of this. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I can imagine giving the wrong signal and ending up with the wrong man! LOL!

    1. I have to believe that happened. Interesting idea for a story.