The sixteenth century English writer Joseph Addison stated: "Men have the sword, women have the fan and the fan is probably as effective a weapon!" It was said even a plain woman could be attractive if she used her fan well.
With chaperones always about, how exactly were lovers to communicate? In a time when there was no air conditioning, every woman carried a fan with her to keep cool. The fan proved ideal for communication purposes. Even from the earliest times they seem to have been used for this purpose. During the Elizabethan era, both men and women in Europe practiced a secret language of the fan. The alphabet of the fan made it possible to spell out where a clandestine meeting might take place. The number of fan blades displayed might suggest the time.
However there is a conundrum to consider: If everyone knew the language, wouldn't the chaperones know what you were conveying across the room as well? And what if a certain man was just dense or distracted? Your entire discourse, memorized to declare your love or annoyance, might fall on deaf eyes. This wasn't just a woman making secret codes to her love; entire lists were published. Granted, how much actually made it into practice is in debate. But there is no doubt that people gave it a lot of thought. Matthew Towle's Young Gentleman and Lady's Private Tutor devoted several pages to the subject, and portraits of the period show ladies holding their fans in one or other of Towle's recommended positions. In 1877, a book by Daniel R. Shafer titled Secrets of Life Unveiled gave another such list. Those are just to name a few.
Below is a list drawn from several different sources. As you can see, they contradict themselves. So it would even depend on making sure you and the intended recipient knew the same list, or you might just ruin someone's life.
Letting it rest on the right cheek: 'Yes'
Letting it rest on the left cheek: 'No'
Looking closely at the painting: ‘I like you"
With the handle on to the lips: 'Kiss me.
Resting the fan on her lips: 'I don't trust you'
Resting it open over her lips: 'Don't doubt about me'
Drawing across the cheek: 'I love you'
Hitting her palm: 'Love me'
Resting it closed on her left cheek: 'I'm all yours'
Resting it closed over her heart: 'I love you dearly'
Resting the fan on her heart: 'My love for you makes me suffer'
Having it open, hanging upside down: 'Without your love, I prefer to die'
Giving the fan to the boyfriend: 'My heart belongs only to you'
Resting it open over her heart: 'I want to get married'
Twirling it on the left hand: 'I love another'
Closing an open fan very slowly: 'I promise to marry you'
Resting the fan on her heart: 'My love for you is breaking my heart'
Dropping down the fan: 'I'm suffering, but I love you'
Dropping the fan: 'I belong to you'
Dropping it: 'We will be friends'
Spinning the fan in the left hand: 'We are being watched'
Drawing across the forehead: 'We are watched'
Resting it closed on her right cheek: 'Be careful, my family is watching.'
Drawing across the eyes: 'I am sorry'
Opening and closing the fan very quickly: 'You are mean'
Fanning very rapidly: 'I have doubts about you'
Fanning quickly: 'I love you so much'
Carrying it closed and hanging from her left hand: 'I want to have a boyfriend'
Carrying the fan closed and hanging from her left hand: 'I'm engaged'
Carrying it closed and hanging from her right hand: 'I'm engaged.'
Carrying the fan closed and hanging from her right hand: 'I want to be engaged'
Fanning slow: 'I am married'
Slowly fanning herself: 'Don't waste your time; I don't care about you'
Covering the left ear with an open fan: 'Don't betray our trust or our secret'
Closing it very fast: 'Talk with my father'
Closing the fan quickly and impetuously: 'I'm jealous'
Hitting her dress with the fan: 'I'm jealous'
Hitting any object: 'I'm impatient'
Closing it: 'I wish to speak with you'
Open wide: 'Wait for me'
Hiding the sunlight: 'You're ugly'
Drawing through the hand: 'I hate you'
Abrupt, threatening gestures with a closed fan: 'Do not be careless or hasty'
Taking the fan from her boyfriend: 'I don't want anything else from you'
Covering part of her face with the open fan: 'We have finished'
Resting it closed over her forehead: 'I am ignoring you'
Putting away the fan closed: 'I'm not going out today'
Taking it out of her purse: 'I'll be out today'
Playing with the fan: 'I'm in a hurry'
Fanning herself with her left hand: 'Don't flirt with that woman'
Passing the fan from hand to hand: 'I see that you are looking at another woman'
Running her fingers through the ribs: 'I want to talk to you'
Gently touching one finger to the edge of the fan: 'I need to speak to you'
Carrying in the right hand: 'You are too willing'
Carrying in the left hand: 'Desirous of an acquaintance'
Carrying in your right hand in front of your face: 'Follow me'
Placing it on the right ear: 'You have changed'
Shut: 'I have changed'