Reminisce: Creating cool customers: Promoting business using fans

LIMA — In popular myth, the young Victorian-era lady, cocooned in several layers of clothing and watched over by chaperones, used her hand fan to send out secretive signals to men.

In the mid-19th century, a French fan maker, who some suspect played a big role in creating the myth in the first place, published a leaflet decoding the signals. In all, according to the wily fan maker, there were about two dozen messages that men could divine from how women handled their fans.

For instance, according to the fan maker, a woman carrying a fan in her right hand in front of her face was indicating she wished to be followed whereas a woman using her fan to fan was generally bad news for any would-be suitor. A fast-fanning woman was letting any pursuer know she was engaged while a slow-fanner was signaling, “Go away; I’m married,” according to the fan maker. Letting the fan rest on the right cheek meant “yes,” letting it rest on the left cheek meant “no” and placing the fan behind the head meant, “Don’t forget me,” which probably would be difficult to do anyway, given that she was carrying a fan behind her head.

In any event, messages delivered via hand fan became much clearer when restaurants, hotels, shops, politicians, funeral homes, you name it, began to promote themselves with advertising printed on cardboard fans mounted on sticks. So, while a woman in the 19th century drawing a fan across her cheek might be pledging her love, a woman in the 20th century making the same gesture with an advertising fan might be pledging her love, or simply passing on the message, “Keep Cool! Meet me at the Allen County Fair” or, perhaps, “Howdy! If you want first class work & service call … Slater L. Bots, tailor and cleaner in Sugar Alley, rear of Manhattan Cigar Store.”

The hand fan, researchers at Purdue University concluded, has survived thousands of years by adapting to fit a variety of needs. “The hand fan went from a simple tool for creating a breeze to works of art, owned by royalty, souvenirs of historical events, and cheap paper versions used as advertisements.”

The cheap, advertising versions began appearing late in the 19th century and were usually given away, although, at times, such as on a sweltering afternoon, the unscrupulous sold them to the desperate. During the June 1888 Republican Convention in Chicago, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat complained that “Chicago has thrown off all semblance of disguise and is reaping the harvest while the grain is ripe,” adding that “Hundreds of men and boys are on the streets selling at 10 cents and 25 cents advertising fans prepared for free distribution by railroad companies and business houses.”

Local advertising fans from the Allen County Historical Society collection are on display near the Elizabeth M. MacDonell Memorial Library entrance in the Allen County Museum.


This feature is a cooperative effort between the newspaper and the Allen County Museum and Historical Society.


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Reach Greg Hoersten at [email protected]