Okay, so it wasn’t called ‘texting’ back in the mid-1800s, but rather the language of the fan. Whether myth or truth (an ongoing argument) it is said that in the era when hand-held fans were widely used as cooling instruments, they were also used to transmit furtive messages, mainly of a romantic nature. The way a lady positioned her fan conveyed her unspoken message to a gentleman of interest.
Scrimshander, Bill Graves, well known around Mystic Seaport for his scrimshaw passion and artistry, recently showed a group of us items from his personal scrimshaw collection. One item was a beautiful, delicate-looking fan made from ivory. Perhaps it was once used in a 19th-century version of Twitter!
- The lady appears briefly on the balcony, slowly fanning herself, and then quickly goes inside, shutting the balcony = “I can’t go out.”
- The lady appears briefly, excitedly fanning herself and quickly goes inside, leaving the balcony open = “I’ll go out soon.”
- Resting the fan on her lips = “I don’t trust you.”
- 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 fan’s ribs = “I want to talk to you.”
- Carrying the fan closed and hanging from her left hand = “I’m engaged.”
- Ditto from her right hand = “I want to be engaged.”
- Quickly and impetuously closing the fan = “I’m jealous.”
- Hitting any object with her fan = “I’m impatient.”
- Dropping the fan = “I belong to you.”
- Half opening the fan over her face = “We are being watched over.”
- Or alas – slowly fanning herself = “Don’t waste your time; I don’t care about you.”
Myth or truth? Who’s to say for certain. Personally, I’m rather relieved that Facebook, Twitter and even good old-fashioned face-to- face word conversations have long since replaced the language of the fan!
Blog written by Trudi Busey
(Scrimshaw was the name given originally to tools fashioned in the 1700s from the byproducts of whales. Later the term encompassed the artistic handiwork crafted by seamen whalers during their idle time aboard ship. Designs were scratched primarily into bones and teeth of sperm whales with coloring of the etched design provided by candle black, soot or tobacco juice. The Voyages exhibit found in Mystic Seaport’s Stillman Building exhibits a portion of the Museum’s vast collection of scrimshaw.)