By the 18th century, they were so popular that users were devising playful ways of using them for silent communication, most importantly for flirting.
It’s impossible to know how many men and women genuinely attempted to master and deploy the ‘language of the fan’, especially as many, conflicting systems were put forward.
An edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine from 1740 put forward various motions of the fan to represent each letter of the alphabet, while other methods – including one publicised by a French fan-maker – assigned messages to particular gestures.
These included touching the tip of the fan with a finger (‘I wish to speak to you’), twirling the fan (‘we are watched’) and drawing it across the cheek (‘I love you’). Another example of these fancy words was to hold a fan in the right hand in front of the face to mean ‘follow me’.
Whatever the case, the idea women were ‘armed with fans as men with swords’ was already a common cause for amusement by the Georgian era.
This article was first published in the Christmas 2015 issue of History Revealed. Answered by one of our Q&A experts, Emily Brand. For more fascinating questions by Emily, and the rest of our panel, pick up a copy of History Revealed! Available in print and for digital devices.