The art of flirting

This new Blackberry Messenger commercial for the BBM Flirt was recently brought to my attention, and it got me thinking about how even flirting is computer-mediated these days. (By this I mean we use some kind of technology — in this case BBM — as a sort of go-between to our conversations.) Exchanging BBM pins is a lot less risky than exchanging actual phone numbers, right? You feel safer because you can flirt with the cute stranger without having to get too up close and personal until you are ready. There isn’t anything inherently wrong in using the phone or BBM to connect; it’s just the way things are.

Fan Dance image

Fan Flirtation. Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913). Oil On Canvas.

It did make me wonder, though, how people flirted back “in the olden days.” The answer: Fans. Yes, those decorative accessories were not for stirring up a breeze or completing an outfit. In the Victorian era and earlier, fans were the original BBM. Certain strokes or speeds of fanning meant different things, and could be used to signal messages to the cute young gentleman across the room at the ball. You used the fan at your own peril, or dealt with the consequences.

Lady with Fan

I hope knew what she was doing with that fan! Looks like she's asking for a kiss.

Averyl’s Attic has compiled some examples of these “fan messages”:

The fan placed near the heart: You have won my love.
Half-opened fan pressed to the lips: You may kiss me.
Hiding the eyes behind an open fan: I love you.
Opening and closing the fan several times: You are cruel.
Fanning slowly: I am married.
Fanning quickly: I am engaged.
Twirling the fan in the left hand: You are being watched.

I do hope everyone spoke the same dialect of fanning! Otherwise, the results could have been awkward…

(Read more about fan messages and check out a quiz here.)

Of course, fans weren’t the only tool for flirting at the disposal of proper young women. They also had calling cards. (Daring!) Once a relationship had progressed beyond flapping semaphoric messages at one another across a ballroom, a young couple could exchange these cards. They could also simply drop off such a card at the home of the object of their affection to indicate that he should come for a visit. Like the fans, calling cards could also be fraught with hidden meaning. For example, the hidden name card with the pink rose symbolizes a hidden love, while doves and roses together symbolize peace and love. Specific flowers also had certain meanings to decipher.

In the Victorian era, it wasn’t considered proper to be open in public about romantic interest, so young people had to resort to other methods, both subtle and complex. These days, we don’t have such stigmas, and are free to openly exchange BBM pins to our heart’s content. Same idea, different mediums. But I still think the calling cards are prettier.

calling card collage

Calling card collage made with images from Morning Glory Antiques & Jewelry.


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