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The Secret Language of the Hand-Held Fan

Summer is finally upon us in much of world, and we are already thinking of ways to beat the heat! Since we are based in Madrid, Ampere’s staff has been particularly hot, and devising ways to stay cool at the height of the summer had us thinking about a topic we’ve mentioned in the past – the secret language of the fans that so many Spanish women traditionally carry to stay cool on these tough June, July and August days.

Did you know that moving a hand-held fan – or abanico as they are called here in Spain – actually helps to increase airflow and therefore the evaporation of sweat on the skin? They were also even used to smash insects during the summer months in some parts of the world! This subtle tool, however, is not unique just to Spain. According to news publication ABC, we can see traces of traditional fan use in Egypt, Babylonia Persia, Greece, and even Rome. It was the Portuguese who finally brought the foldable fan to Europe, following trade with the Orient. The foldable fan as we know it today was invented in Japan, where it is said that a worker named Tamba was inspired by bats’ wings to create the design. The fan was used in Japanese Kabuki theatre, where we see the first movements that were meant to be signals.

During the Renaissance, in the 16th and 17th century, fans became widely popular in Europe. Queen Elizabeth the first of England famously told her maids in waiting that “a queen can accept only one gift: a fan.” Anything else was unacceptable.

The fan in Spain dates back to the 14th century, where it is cited in Pedro IV of Aragon’s chronicles, but it was not until the 17th century when artisan Eugenio Prost became the country’s most widely renowned fan producer. The fans were made with different colors and designs, various materials, sizes and for all uses: weddings, funerals, home use, or pocket-sized (more commonly used for men).

The use of the fan is still prevalent today, thank goodness, so we can enjoy a cool breeze no matter where we are. Its movements, position, and placement are still used as a kind of language today, as well. Ladies throughout the 19th and 20th centuries used fans to communicate in secret: to declare love, for example, as females were not permitted to speak their minds until well into the 1970s. Here are some of the more well-known gestures:

To fan quickly: intense romantic interest

To fan slowly: already married, or uninterested

To close slowly: this would mean a “yes”; opening and closing quickly meant the woman was either engaged or had a boyfriend, so the suitor had better be careful!

To close quickly: a clear “no”

From these, some of the “fan language” gets even more scandalous! For example, to open the fan halfway on one’s lips means, “you can kiss me,” while covering one’s eyes with the fan open means, “I love you.” Covering one’s face on the other hand means, “be careful, we’re being watched.”

The seductive language of the beautiful and traditional Spanish abanico is just one of many secret languages invented over time to communicate in the open without necessarily being overt.  While the fan in Spain may be seen from the outside as an antiquated artifact with no contemporary use, a visit to the peninsula will prove otherwise. The fan is still a major part of the culture – both for practical reasons, and as a subtle method of communication, especially among those in love! We love to explore the creative ways humans communicate, and the fan is just one of many that we will continue to share with you over the coming weeks and months. Stay cool this summer!