Certainly the origin of the fan has a lot to do with cooling oneself, but there is some evidence that in the 18th and perhaps 19th centuries, there was an actual language of the fan itself, a way that women could communicate intimate messages with their lovers and even a way to flirt in a subtle way.
The following is a list of some of this language of the fan:
To hold the fan with the right hand in front of the face— Follow me.
To hold it in the left ear— I want you to leave me alone.
To let slide it on the forehead— You have changed.
To move it with the left hand— They are watching us.
To change it to the right hand— You are imprudent.
To throw the fan— I hate you.
To move it with the right hand— I love another.
To let slide it on the cheek— I want you.
To hold it closed— Do you love me?
To let slide it on the eyes— Go away, please.
To touch the edge of the hand fan with the fingers— I want to talk to you.
To hold it on the right cheek— Yes.
To hold it on the left cheek— No.
To open and close it— You are cruel.
To leave it hanging— We will continue being friends.
To fan slowly— I am married.
To fan quickly— I am engaged.
To hold the fan in the lips— Kiss me.
To open it slowly— Wait for me.
To open the hand fan with the left hand— Come and talk to me.
To strike it, closed, on the left hand— Write me.
To semiclose it in the right and on the left— I can’t.
To hold it opened, covering the mouth— I am single.
Of course, fans were also a way for firms to market and advertise, especially funeral homes (see the Martin Luther King fan below, with a picture of his mother on the wall behind him; “Together Again” is written at the base of the fan).
The energy put into the artistry of fans is also impressive. From hand-painting to inlaid mother of pearl to carving, this item has often been lavished with great creativity and craftsmanship.