Fanning Flames : Advice for a lady -- on love, life, and happiness -- inscribed in the folds of her fan

February 14, 2014
Astrid Johannah Smith
Fan Image

An object associated with demure and lady-like behavior, the captions underneath each detailed etched vignette on this 1797 fan are surprisingly wry, witty, and thought provoking. Once commonplace, no self-respecting Georgian era lady would be without such an object. As Leah Marie Brown states, “Fans were must-have accoutrements for ladies of 18th century. They were used to perform multiple functions: They could offer a gentle breeze in an overheated room, allow the user to spy on people behind her (some fans had small mirrors on their sticks), conceal gossiping lips, and convey a secret (or not so secret) message.”

  The lady's adviser, physician & moralist...

The fan in question did not conceal a mirror, but rather offered insightful notations advising its' lady owner on love, life, and morals. Centered among the vignettes is an illustration of Cupid, carrying a description of its' intended use. If followed correctly, a young woman could avoid becoming an outcast or even worse, becoming a cat lady.

Detail of Cat Lady Vignette.

Furthermore, the Georgian era lady could communicate a multitude of subtle signals with her fan, as noted in a small booklet published by Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy during the early part of the 19th century titled, "The Language of the Fan." This consisted of motions and coded gestures, some of which are listed:
    •    Twirling the fan in the left hand: We are watched.
    •    Carrying the fan in the right hand in front of her face: Follow me.
    •    Covering the left ear with the open fan: Do not betray our secret.
    •    Drawing the fan through the hand: I hate you.
    •    Drawing the fan across the cheek: I love you.
    •    Touching the tip of the fan with the finger: I wish to speak to you.
    •    Letting the fan rest on the right cheek: Yes.
    •    Letting the fan rest on the left cheek: No.
    •    Opening and shutting the fan: You are cruel.
    •    Dropping the fan: We will be friends.
    •    Fanning slowly: I am married.
    •    Fanning rapidly: I am engaged.
    •    Touching the handle of the fan to the lips: Kiss me.

While beautifully detailed images are now available online, and the object is visible in it's fully extended position, working with this fan was a unique and challenging project for the Digital Production Group's photographers. Imaging was difficult for several reasons, namely overall fragility. Even when gently and carefully opened, the paper attached to the wooden slats made soft cracking noise due to condition or possibly poor paper adhesive. Because of this concern, Conservator David Brock was asked to review the fan before imaging, and he felt confident that it could be opened fully and gently flattened to increase visibility of the detailed etchings. The next step was to appropriately support the tiered object and secure it so that it would remain open during photography. This was accomplished by using strategically placed zip ties, punctured through black foam core, and creating a wedge for the fan to rest upon.

Securing the fan

Adjusting the camera to get an increased depth of field allowed each etched vignette to be captured in crisp detail. The final step in imaging was positioning the studio lights as to minimize the shadows in each fold, and to accurately capture the gold leaf outer edge of the fan.

Even lighting.

This required an overhead lightsource, which reduced the inherent shadows in such a textured object and allowed the gold leaf to "pop" and appear consistent and vibrant. Finally, post processing steps including color correction, removal of the background supports and ties, and other image quality control procedures, assured the best possible result.

Pre and Post Processing

Through the careful efforts of DPGs photographers and staff, Stanford University Library's Special Collections visitors and online viewers alike may now safely enjoy both the beautiful fully extended object and high-resolution details of each vignette depicted on this unique fan.

Blog post by Digital Product Group members Wayne Vanderkuil, Lead Photographer, and Astrid J. Smith, Rare Book & Special Collections Digitization Specialist

The Lady's Advisor Fan can be viewed at: