Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fans of Communication

Texting is nothing new. It may seem inconceivable, but it first originated in the late 18th century with the use of a simple folding fan. When the fan was first introduced to Europe by way of trade routes from Asia in the second half of the 16th century, it quickly became a fashion accessory and was regarded as a symbol of status and wealth. By the late 17th century, France became the folding fan center of the world and the French royalty would commission richly decorated examples with handpainted paper and carved blades. The mistress of Louis XV was said to have a fan that cost $30,000 and took nine years to make. It had intricately cut paper imitating lace and contained ten miniature paintings.
     Folding fans were not only designed for generating a cool breeze, but they were also regarded as disciplined communication devices. For example, the Ladies Telegraph fan displayed above, is regarded as a conversation fan. It was designed in 1798 for conversing across a room by pulling tabs denoting letters. Words and sentences could be spelled with the aid of a color chart and engraved instructions on the back of the fan. Over time, an entire "fan etiquette" evolved with subtle hand gestures to signal certain intentions to a familiar suitor. It really was the cell phone of the 17th century. 
The Fanology, or Ladies Conversation Fan, was invented by Mr. Charles Francis Badini in 1797. It enabled conversation within close range via semaphore. By holding the fan in a certain position, a letter of the alphabet would be indicated and whole words and sentences could be spelled out. Engraved on the back were "texting" shortcuts for familiar Q and As. Below is a paper fan from 1796 portraying a view of the Telegraph system using open and closed shutters for each specific letter of the alphabet. 

In the early 20th century folding fans became a tool for advertising. This one from 1910 was promoting Champagne Dry Monopole from Paris. Below is an earlier fan from 1900 advertising Crosfields' "Fan" White Soap. Both are printed chromoliths. 

Parisian chocolatier Marquise de Sevigne issued this handcolored litho folding fan in 1900. Below is another paper folding fan explaining rules of the various card games of the day. It is also engraved and hand-colored.    
All of these fans originally appeared in the December 2012 Dominic Winter auction catalog and were part of a much larger collection.


  1. this is very cool.
    as usual.
    You do the best research. this is one of my favorite posts because it mixes up so many topics under one umbrella. Or fan, in this case.

  2. Thanks Sara. Connecting the dots is always the challenge, but this one fascinated me. Who knew there were such parallels?


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