Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Etiquette and Victorian Fan Fiction

not to mention secret codes of parasols and handkerchiefs

One wouldn't need a secret fan decoder book to figure out what Marie Antoinette was tying to convey non-verbally.
A few years ago, I gave a talk at a tea house on the language of the fan and the handkerchief. I shared an assortment of elaborate gestures I had read about, assuring the audience that women of the Victorian era had a secret coded communication with their fans and handkerchiefs.


She's not sending signals, but practicing an art form to entertain.
No secret code here. A clear statement;"Edward Ferrars is mine!"
Sounds legitimate doesn’t it?  Sadly these codes were fiction. To my astonishment, they were never used in polite society as a regular practice. I have referenced books on etiquette, manners and proper behavior of the time and found not one reference of a coded communication that accompanied these popular accessories for women. So how did this” fictional behavior” become accepted as fact? Simple... dime store novels and magazines, written to push the sale of the aforementioned items.
"I believe one of your sisters tossed this into the street as I was marching by, sending a secret code that she thinks I'm hot.  We have a lot in common, as I also happen to think I'm hot."

Myth busters abound on the internet, and here below is just one's take on the secret languages and codes;

"Unfortunately, the fan language -- and other, similar codes like the language of the handkerchief and the language of the parasol--were largely the result of advertising campaigns meant to popularize and sell accessories. There is little evidence that the fan language was ever in widespread use, though the concept was satirized by several writers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Besides being rather impractical, fan codes were a bit dangerous; an unconscious fidget or desire to actually fan herself could embroil a lady in a totally unintentional feud--or marriage. Not to mention the consequences if the matron acting as chaperone to a courting couple had, a few years earlier, employed the fan language to win her own husband!" -Esti Brennan, Clements Library Chronicles
In order to sell a product successfully you have to create a gimmick to peak a person’s interest and since handkerchiefs and fans were commonly used amongst women on a regular basis, what better way to promote your novels and to sell more of these popular accessories then to create a trend? However it is imperative that everybody in your target audience is “in on it.” Otherwise a whole wave of misunderstanding could ensue. Victoria could be telling Edward that she is engaged (fanning fast) and he just thinks she’s having a hot flash.
Created to sell fans, guides like this from Cassell’s Family Magazine in 1886, were hot sellers.
"Never in any crisis of your life have I known you to have a handkerchief!"

Brief Mentions on Handkerchief Etiquette

"The average bride and groom of good taste and feeling try to be as inconspicuous as possible. On one occasion, in order to hide the fact that they were 'bride and groom,' a young couple 'went away' in their oldest clothes and were very much pleased with their cleverness, until, pulling out his handkerchief, the groom scattered rice all over the floor of the parlor car. The bride's lament after this was--"Why had she not worn her prettiest things?" Emily Post 1922 


"At a lecture, a special personal respect is due to the speaker. This is shown by a courteous attention and a general demeanor of interest and appreciation. If applause is merited, it should be given in a refined manner. The stamping of the feet is coarse, and the pounding of the floor with canes and umbrellas is as lazy as it is noisy. The clapping of hands is a natural language of delight, and, when skillfully done, is an enthusiastic expression of approbation. Some effort is being made to substitute the waving of handkerchiefs as a symbol of approval or greeting to a favorite speaker, but it is quite probable that this silent signal will not take the place of the more active demonstration of clapping the hands, except on very quiet and intellectual occasions." 


"Scratching the head or ears, and picking the teeth, are operations that are properly attended to in one's own dressing-room. The conspicuous use of the handkerchief is in bad form. Blowing the nose is not a pleasant demonstration at any time, and at the table is simply unpardonable. A person of fastidious taste will take care of the nose in the quietest and most unobtrusive way, and refrain from disgusting other people of fastidious taste."  Agnes H. Morton 1892



"Never use the table-cloth to wipe your mouth, you might as well use it in place of your pocket handkerchief.""The first present must be made by the gentleman.  It is very proper for this first present to be followed by gifts upon appointed days, as birthdays, Christmas, or New Year's Day, and the lady is at perfect liberty to return the compliment. It is considered more elegant for the gentleman to offer jewelry, the lady some gift which is the work of her own hands, as a handsome pair of embroidered slippers, a handkerchief with richly embroidered monograms, a cigar-case embroidered, or some similar gift." Frost's Laws and By-Laws of American Society 1869
"No need to send signals. I'm Lady Mary and everyone knows it."

Brief Mentions on Parasol Etiquette

"A woman should not mix up her wardrobe, and wear a 
theatre bonnet to church, or carry a coaching parasol to a 
funeral."  Agnes H. Morton 1892 

"One should never call out a name in public, unless it is absolutely unavoidable. A young girl who was separated from her friends in a baseball crowd had the presence of mind to put her hat on her parasol and lift it above the people surrounding her so that her friends might find her." 
"To repeat, therefore, the young woman who wants to look pretty should confine her exercise to dancing. She can also hold a parasol over her head and sit in a canoe" Emily Post
"In seeing a lady to her carriage or motor, it is quite correct for a gentleman to put his hand under her elbow to assist her; and in helping her out he should alight first and offer her his hand. He should not hold a parasol over her head unless momentarily while she searches in her wrist-bag for something, or stops perhaps to put on or take off her glove, or do anything that occupies both hands. With an umbrella the case is different, especially in a sudden and driving rain, when she is often very busily occupied in trying to hold "good" clothes out of the wet and a hat on, as well. She may also, under these circumstances, take the gentleman's arm, if the 'going' is thereby made any easier." 

"To repeat, therefore, the young woman who wants to look pretty should confine her exercise to dancing. She can also hold a parasol over her head and sit in a canoe--or she can be pretty how and where she will, so long as it is not on a horse in the park or hunting-field." Emily Post 1922

Parasols can double as walking sticks.  Just don't suck on them!


"A lady when calling keeps her parasol in her hand, and is not required to remove her glove. It is a sign of low-breeding to fidget with the hat, cane or parasol during a call. They are introduced merely as signs that the caller is in walking dress, and are not intended, the hat to be whirled round the top of the cane, the cane to be employed in tracing out the pattern of the carpet, or the parasol to be tapped on the teeth, or worse still, sucked.  No lady will be guilty of the vulgarity of sucking the head of her parasol in the street. To eat anything, even confectionery, in the street, is a sign of low breeding." 


"After assisting a lady to her seat, be certain that her parasol, shawl, and fan are all conveniently placed for her use before you take your own seat. Allow her all the space you can, and be especially careful that the motion of your arms does not incommode her." Frost's Laws and By-Laws of American Society 1869

"After assisting a lady to her seat, be certain that her parasol, shawl, and fan are all conveniently placed for her use before you take your own seat. Allow her all the space you can, and be especially careful that the motion of your arms does not incommode her." 


So imagine poor Edward’s further confusion when Victoria bites the tip of her gloves then puts her hat under her right arm and she drops her parasol in the process. So what did she want?  To get rid of him? (biting tip of her gloves) ; for Edward to wait for her (hat under right arm) ; or to tell him she loved him? (dropping the parasol).  It appears this type of code system would breed a whole lot of confusion and imagine the confusion if there were married people involved. 

While there is a legitimate code of communication with flowers, I am sorry to say that all the codes for these different accessories were just gimmicks in order to encourage people to buy more dime store novels and more accessories for their wardrobe increasing the profit margin of companies promoting these products.






Compiled and submitted by Demita Usher of Social Graces and Savoir Faire



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