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Courtship Advice Fan

Victorian scrapbook fan made by Julia Morris of Madison, decorated with suggestions about courtship, love and marriage, 1895-1899.
(Museum object #1955.480A)

We often tend to think of women from the conservative Victorian era as demure and ladylike in their behavior, particularly when it came to romance. But as this late 1890s fan shows, some women of the era approached courtship rituals with a unique sense of humor. Madison, Wisconsin resident Julia Morris (born c. 1881) constructed this fan while at a party with her friends between the years 1895 and 1899.

Morris cut words from a variety of publications and cobbled them into a number of rather pithy witticisms about love and marriage, including such phrases as "A Word to Old Maids/ Send a 2 Cent Stamp/ For/ A Man" and "Do you think/ It's best to/ Pop/ The great question/ It's a simple process." Perhaps her feelings about love were best expressed on the reverse side of the fan, which boldly exclaimed only "Look Before you Leap."

While born out of necessity for comfort in the days before air conditioning and electric fans, handheld fans took on different, secondary cultural meaning to the societies that used them, particularly as a sign of prestige among the well-to-do. Although fans may have been used by the Japanese since the seventh century, flexible, pleated fans that fold like this one were not introduced to Europeans until the 1500s. They quickly rose to luxury status among wealthy women, who required their use when donning the heavy, constrictive clothing popular throughout the Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical periods.

By the mid-nineteenth century, mass-production made fans widely attainable and quite popular as fashionable accessories for a broader range of social classes. They were used principally as an evening accessory, usually with feathers, lace, silk, or paper mounted on sticks of wood, celluloid, or ivory. This fan features a plain and inexpensive mai ogi (dancing fan) base imported from Japan. The heavy paper made it notably durable for the quick movements required while dancing.

A hand-adorned style of fan appealed to the typical late Victorian period women who liked to do crafts. Among her friends, a sentimental woman could use a fan to gather illustrations and signatures or choose to make scrap fans like this one, similar to the scrapbook albums of the time that commemorated travel and other events. While we do not know for sure, the photographs pasted onto the fan's surface may have been offerings from Julia's closest friends—a speculation lent credibility by the glowing terms she chose to describe the young women, including "every one a gem."

Among European and American women and men of courtship age, a fan also had an understood secondary language of its own during this period—one that did not require the literal sayings such as those pasted here. Passed down from generation to generation, the "secret" language included a variety of gestures women could make with their fans to convey their intentions to a man.

For example, a woman could cover her left ear with an open fan to say "do not betray our secret," touch a half-opened fan to her lips to stay "you may kiss me," twirl the fan in her left hand to warn "we are being watched" or twirl the fan in her right hand to signify "I already love another." In an era where overt gestures of a woman's intentions were considered highly taboo, such subtle indicators were apparently considered passable in strict society, intended to go unnoticed by all but the 'conversing' party.

Just a few years after making this fan, Julia Morris married Joseph William Jackson on June 12, 1901. Fifty years later, Mr. Jackson donated the fan to the Wisconsin Historical Society. Unfortunately, we do not know whether this fan played any roll in their own introduction, courtship, and eventual marriage, but it seems he was, indeed, "in need of a loving dainty wife" and heeded the fan's prophecies and did "accept a sweetheart."

[Sources: Bellais, Leslie. "Cool Breezes: Handheld Fans in Fashion, Art and Advertising," in Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn 2004; Fendel, Cynthia. "All About Hand Fans," Hand Fan Productions (2008)]


Posted on February 14, 2008

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  • Clothing & Personal Items
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