Fans have a special place in culture since the break of time. Iconographic confirmations of their existence and use come from the Far East as well as from ancient Egypt and Greece. While in Egypt large and relatively inconvenient to use bunches of leaves or feathers that required separate handling were still in use, a miniaturized version of the fan appears already in Greece, allowing for its individual and personal use. In addition to the function of bringing relief to the heat by causing airflow, it also had another equally practical role, in driving away insects, which elevated it to the rank of a ceremonial object that is still used today in eastern churches.

The East, therefore, both the near and the distant one, constantly uses fans in various forms and functions. The West, on the other hand, forgot about this functional object several hundred years after the fall of Rome, to accept it again as a novelty brought from the East by the Crusaders.

Originating from East Asia, the invention of a “harmonica” fan appeared and spread in the upper circles of European society starting from the 16th century, reaching the peak of popularity two centuries later. Unlike the Far East, where it was (and still is) equipment used by representatives of both sexes, in Europe the fan has found its way into the arsenal of always fashionable women’s accessories.

While maintaining its practical function, it has also become the object of artistic expression of craftsmen who compete in giving it sophisticated forms, decorations and the use of expensive and rare materials. This, in turn, made the fan, and more precisely its elaborate workmanship and price, one of the signs of the social status of the user.

Obtaining the rank of an obligatory element of a female outfit, often functioning in isolation from its basic function, it was an object that was constantly present in the hand of a fashionable woman, thus it naturally became an extension of the hand and thanks to the equally naturally eye-catching form, it allowed to include gestures to the mute body language of a social woman. From there, there was only one step to creating a system of signs, which were assigned meanings, just as they were combined with specific gestures or facial expressions. The fan served an elegant woman to such an extent for non-verbal communication and exerting a silent influence on the environment that, in order to reflect its effectiveness, it was even compared to a white weapon in a man’s hand

Some social phenomena, especially those concerning the elite, tend to escalate to the point of exceeding the absurd. Hence at the end of the 18th century, two gentlemen in England decided, with the simplicity typical of men, to put into logical patterns what women were able to express thanks to fans. This is how this item, quite forgotten nowadays, came into being, which was noted in the Blell Inventory under the name: love fan or telegraph.

"Fanology" of the Badini system; https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/P_1891-0713-508 (08.07.2021).

This invention, or rather the entire system of its use, was conceived in the mind of Charles Badini (inventor) and Robert Clarke (producer), and has been called “Fanology”. It consisted in making a fan of appropriate sequences of movements corresponding to individual letters of the alphabet, thanks to which, as the inventor and producer assured, the ladies could communicate at a distance and in a secret way. The system was probably too difficult to use, because a few years after it appeared a slightly simpler, “invented” by Robert Rove “Ladies Telegraph”, which simply indicated individual letters placed on the edge of the fan. In both cases, the instruction on how to encode the information was printed on mass-produced fans.

While the existence and functioning of “women’s telegraphs” or “fans of love” is a fact, their actual use by women according to man-invented methods is sometimes questioned. The reasons for questioning the tales of clever ladies using fans secretly from their husbands to send secret short text messages (i.e. SMS ;-)) are quite convincing. For if the invention was to be useful, it would have to be an information channel conveying messages understandable only to the sender and recipient. And how to keep a secret, since the manual is printed on a mass-produced fan and the rules for its use are advertised in the press? How to make a message readable for one man – e.g. a lover, and unreadable for another – e.g. a husband? These doubts seem to point to “talking fans” as a marketing ploy of fan producers and perhaps a social entertainment fashionable for several seasons. Of course, this does not mean that women, ignoring the dubious utility of men’s inventions did not use it as a prop to strengthen a gesture, enrich body language, and by doing it skillfully actually obtained the effect of communication with a man who should receive the message exactly as the woman wanted with the fan functioning as an obligatory accessory to an elegant outfit.

Unfortunately, the laconic entry in Blell’s Inventory does not allow us to state which system the object from his collection represented . It is also unknown what happened to the monument after the collection was dispersed. Maybe it is in one of the museums or maybe it is in private hands.

(by A. Masłowski)

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