Fans were an indispensable article of dress from the 18th century onward. Not only did they cool the wearer, who was burdened by heavy garments after a heated dance, but they became the means of transmitting clandestine messages. It would be too bold to actually walk up to someone of the opposite sex and say very personal things, but a flick of the fan would do the job. Since it was common for gentlemen to carry hand fans as well, quite a conversation, flirtation, or argument could be carried on across a crowded room. Using a wide variety of movements, the fan transmitted symbolic language, and even an alphabetic code. Of course, all these coded messages were about male/female relationships, but really, don't you want some secret signs to say things you'd never say out loud? I knew a couple who had a few personal gestures they'd use; for instance, at a dull gathering, tugging on the right earlobe meant "Let's leave". Our family has a hand sign for "Who cares?", which is apparently a variation of the West Side Crips gang sign, but since we do it palm forward and it predates the gang sign, we think of them as sissy posers.
Poor Dolly and Minerva are beginning to despair about their social connections. Father hosts a tea for some Fellows of the Antiquarian Society of London, where he is a major force in their publication Vetusta Monumenta. While Father spouts forth on the quality of engravings, Minerva and Dolly are driven to express their boredom through fan signs of their own devising.
I was so happy to find this lovely Tea Table from Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, on The Old Design Shop blog. The pictures there are sooo nice and beautifully scanned, so why not visit?