Posts Tagged ‘Regency Fans’

by Brenda S. Cox

When Emma encountered Mrs. Elton visiting Jane Fairfax, “she saw [Mrs. Elton] with a sort of anxious parade of mystery fold up a letter which she had apparently been reading aloud to Miss Fairfax, and return it into the purple and gold ridicule by her side,”—Emma, Volume 3, chapter 16, Cambridge edition

If you’ve ever made yourself a Jane Austen-era costume, you know that a reticule is an essential accessory. These lovely small purses hung by a drawstring from the lady’s wrist.

In previous generations, wide skirts had allowed for two huge pockets, one on each hip, to hold essential items. But with the slim new Regency style, there was no longer room for pockets. So the pockets were externalized and made small and beautiful.

If you have a reticule, you realize that it doesn’t hold nearly as much as a modern purse. Nowadays we might put our phone and a credit card, driver’s license, and little cash in the reticule. But what did Jane Austen’s ladies carry in theirs?

Candice Hern recently gave three lovely presentations for the JASNA AGM*. She showed her collection of items an Austen-era lady might have carried in her reticule. First, she pointed out that Jane Austen would probably not have used the word reticule! This little purse was more often called a ridicule.  This was the word used in ladies’ magazines of the time. That’s why, in the quote above from the original 1816 edition of Emma, Mrs. Elton has a purple and gold ridicule, not a reticule.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists sources calling it a ridicule from 1799 to 1999, and sources calling it a reticule from 1801 to 2004. So the terms were used interchangeably for a long time. Both words apparently came from the French word réticule for a small handbag. That word came from the Latin rēticulum for a small meshwork bag. Ridicule may have been a pun on the French word, though no one seems to know for sure.

The only time Jane Austen mentions a reticule, or ridicule, is in the above passage from Emma. Mrs. Elton slips a letter into her ridicule, which is, of course, a showy purple and gold one. Austen may have purposely chosen the form ridicule because Mrs. Elton is so often ridiculous! But modern versions usually change it to reticule.

So, we know that reticules could be used to carry letters. The Cambridge edition of Emma tells me that reticules might also hold handkerchiefs, snuff boxes, or sweets. However, snuff boxes seem to have been a gentleman’s item, so I doubt ladies would have often carried them. (Though some ladies did take snuff, though not as widely as men did.)

Candice Hern tells us that Regency reticules might range from only two inches long up to about ten inches long. So everything that ladies carried began to be made smaller. This created some lovely, tiny treasures.

Here are some of the items Candice showed us, with photos she kindly provided from her collection:

Reticule Essentials: the Fan, the Coin Purse, and the Vinaigrette


For hot evenings in the “crush” of a crowded ball or party, women carried fans. In Austen’s novels, she says Catherine Morland carried a fan at a dance. At Fanny Price’s ball, it seems her brother fanned her with his partner’s fan. Austen talks about her own “white fan” in a letter of Jan. 8, 1799.

Before and after this period, fans were about 10-12 inches long. (This is the length of the fan sticks; the open fan would be almost twice that in width.) But, to fit in the reticule, fans were made smaller, only about 7 inches long. They were most often made from ivory. Some were pierced with a tiny jeweler’s saw, to give a lacy effect. This was called brisé (pronounced bree-ZAY). Here are two of Candice’s (and my) favorites:

This gorgeous brisé fan is made of mother-of-pearl. It would shine and sparkle in a candlelit ballroom. The guard sticks, at each end of the fan, are made of faceted and polished steel. It also sparkles like jewels. Each stick is pierced identically, but the sticks are placed in alternating directions to form a pattern. c. 1810-1815.

The top section of this fan is painted rather than pierced. The birds and butterflies are made of real feathers. The flowers were created with tiny pieces of velvet.

On the lower part, sticks of three different pierced patterns are arranged to form a more complex pattern. The sticks are 6 ½” long. c. 1810-1820, or earlier.

For more lovely fans, see Candice’s website.

Coin Purses

Regency women didn’t have wallets like we carry today. In small reticules, they may have carried loose coins. But in larger reticules they kept coins in a coin purse so they could find them easily. Ladies usually made these purses, which might be beaded, knitted, or netted. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley marvels at the accomplishments of young ladies, who can all “net purses.”

Some coin purses closed with drawstrings, while others had a metal closure at the top. The closure might be made of pinchbeck—a cheap metal alloy that looks golden—or other metals. Ladies also made coin purses for men. Austen’s favorite poet, William Cowper, wrote a poem thanking his cousin for making him a network purse. Gentlemen’s purses were sometimes called miser’s purses.

A lady probably bought the sterling silver frame (dated 1816) for this coin purse, then netted it with pink and silver metallic thread. It is 3 ¾” long, plus the tassel.


If a woman began to swoon, in an airless room or when she learned something unpleasant, a vinaigrette was pulled out of a reticule and waved under her nose. These tiny metal boxes held a sponge soaked in vinegar and perfumed oils, with a grille over the sponge to let out the fumes. The grille might be dotted with holes, or might be pierced in a lovely design. Vinaigrettes were made of various materials and in many shapes and designs; those in Candice’s collection are silver.

The sponge might alternatively be soaked in something sweet-smelling, like rose water or lavender water. Many places in the Regency era stank, and a sweet smell could help the lady tolerate them.

Austen doesn’t mention vinaigrettes, but she does mention smelling salts, which were used similarly. Candice thinks these salts would actually have been a solution in vinegar, kept in a vinaigrette.

Regency vinaigrettes were tiny and delicate; Candice’s range from ½” across to 1 ¾” across.

This vinaigrette is made of silver but gilded inside, so the vinegar did not discolor the silver. It still contained a ratty sponge when Candice bought it. It could be carried in a reticule, or, with the metal ring, attached to a chatelaine: chains used for hanging things to a woman’s belt. Marked 1802, made in Birmingham.

Other Items That Might be Carried in a Reticule: Perfumes and Cosmetics

Perfume étuis

Perfume also counteracted bad smells. In Austen’s age, when bathing was not very common, perfumes were essential. However, perfume bottles were breakable, easily spilled, and too large to carry in a reticule.

So a lady would carry a perfume étui (pronounced ay-twee), a tiny container that could hold a glass vial of perfume and be fastened tightly shut. (Other types of étuis were used to carry sewing materials, writing materials, eating utensils, and other items; the word is French for any portable case.)

Perfume étuis were made of enamel, metal, tortoiseshell, shagreen, or other materials. Shagreen was a cheap option. It was shark’s skin, usually dyed green, with a knobbly texture. Shagreen étuis were probably used by middle-class women, while upper-class women used more expensive materials.

This painted enamel étui with brass fittings is about 2 ½” high. It held a tiny glass bottle of perfume with a screw-on metal top. 1760s to 1780s.

This shagreen étui is only 1 ¾” tall. It holds two tiny bottles of scent, so the lady can choose which she wants to use.

Cosmetic Cases

Some ladies also carried small cosmetic cases in their reticules. These were similar to today’s compacts. When open, the top was a polished mirror, and the bottom might contain rouge and/or lip color, and an applicator.

This 2 ½” wide cosmetic case still had traces of rouge in it when Candice bought it. The applicator brush is made of ivory. The outside of this case is shagreen (dyed shark skin), with silver decoration. 1770s or 1780s.

Next time, in Part 2, we’ll look at some other fun items a woman might have carried in her reticule. What else do you guess a lady might have carried?

*JASNA AGM—the Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting, which this year was held online in October.

Candice Hern writes Regency-era novels.

To find out more about her and her work, look for her on:




Regency World

To see more of her lovely collections, go to her Regency Collections.

Links in the article above take you to Candice’s articles about specific items.

All images courtesy of Candice Hern, used by permission.

For more information, see also:

Fans: Essential Accessories, including the language of the fan

Reticule: The Regency Purse

A Fashionable Accessory

The Reticule and Purse


You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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I can’t believe it’s been a day since the excitement of my first JASNA (Jane Austen Society of America) Annual Meeting. This one was held in Brooklyn, which turned out to be a fabulous place for this Janeite, for I walked over half of the Brooklyn Bridge between sessions and loitered in Brooklyn Heights, a truly wonderful neighborhood in which to while away one’s time. Then there were the plenary sessions, break out sessions and the EMPORIUM, where money flowed from my pocket into the vendors’. (I had to ship my loot back!)

Feather fan. Only some discoloration and one blemish flaw this otherwise remarkably preserved fan.

One of the loveliest displays was the antique fan exhibition presented by Dr. Abbey Block Cash. The variety of fans was astounding. One, made entirely of feathers, was in almost pristine condition (see image). The fans were so delicate that I would be afraid to handle them and many were hand painted. One in particular caught my eye … a puzzle fan from 1820:

The fan is made of French brise with blond horn sticks. The four images that open in four directions are:

  • Bouquet of flowers
  • Marriage proposal
  • Farm house
  • Planting scene

I went to the website suggested in the brochure, the Fan Association of North America is: http://fanassociation.org/projects.htm. Information on this site was varied and practical. What I liked in particular were the links to other fan sites. FANA is well worth a visit and exploration if you are interested in these beautiful yet practical accessories.

Not all the fans belonged to the Regency Era. As you can see, most are hand painted with exquisite scenes. The last fan in this video was made ca. 1910 (I hope my memory serves me right) and depicts scenes painted by Kate Greenaway. It is obvious from the quality of the fans that all were destined for the upper crust. I did not see a fan of the sort that the lower classes could afford, such as those with advertisements. (Because I did not see such fans, does not mean that they were absent.)

I wish I had the presence of mind to ask about the language of the fan, for there are so many myths swirling around that topic, but those of you who have been to an AGM know how much there is to see and do, and how many people one MUST meet NOW.

The red fan was exquisite and dramatic. The fan in back of it sports Kate Greenaway images of children.

There were some notable absences at this year’s AGM: I so wanted to meet my frequent blog partner Laurel Ann Nattres (editor of Jane Austen Made Me Do It and Austenprose) and Margaret Sullivant (editrix of Austenblog), but alas they did not come this year. You will see over the coming weeks the people I DID meet, such as Joan Klingel Ray, Susannah Fullerton, Deb Barnum (my lovely roommate), Lori Smith, Syrie James, and Dianah Baycich. Some of us fell all over each other like twins separated at birth. Every Janeite should make at least one JASNA Meeting. You simply will not be disappointed. I must add that the folks from JASNA NY did a splendid job of putting this complex (and largest) JASNA conference together. Kudos to all.

Read my other post from the AGM:

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A heatwave has us hiding inside air-conditioned rooms this week. As I gazed at a hideously yellow sky and glowering orange sun last evening, I wondered how people survived 100 degree plus days 200 years ago? They mostly suffered, I imagine! But there were ways they could deal with extreme heat.

Regency fans could be beautiful or plain. All served to move air and cool the user.

Ceilings were higher, so the heated air had a place to rise, and walls were thicker, which kept rooms and basements cooler for longer. Hand held fans were popular, and one source I found said that gentlemen would sport them as well. The rich had mechanisms in the tropics whereby ceiling fans were rotated by strings and pulled by slaves or servants.

Carnfunnock ice house

Big blocks of glacier ice or blocks of ice cut from frozen rivers were hauled up river by ship into the countryside, covered in straw and burlap, and stored in ice houses that were dug into hillsides or were largely underground.

Cutting and hauling river ice. This image is from St. Petersburg, Russia, but the custom of cutting and transporting ice was widespread.

Ice cream was available to those who could afford it in such places a Gunther’s or made at home by the cook.

John Bull and his family at an ice cafe, 1815. Image@Newcastle University

The rich would move back to their country estates for the summer, escaping the stifling heat (and smells) in the city, but ordinary people had to adjust. This morning it was announced that over 2 dozen deaths had been attributed to this latest heatwave, which covers 2/3 of the U.S. I wonder back then how many people died from the effects of such extreme weather?

Regency gentlemen at a country house. Note that they are wearing light clothes without jackets. Sitting under a gazebo, they have pitchers of water at hand. One must pity the footmen in full uniform and wig! Image@Regency House Party

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Ladies fan, 1750

Ladies fan, 1750

Wednesday, June 27, 1711, Mr. Addison writes a letter to The Spectator:

Mr. Spectator – Women are armed with fans as men with swords, and sometime do more excution with them. To the end therefore that ladies may be entire mistresses of the weapon which they bear, I have erected an academy for the training up of young women in the exercise of the fan, according to the most fashionable airs and motions that are now practiced at court. The ladies who carry fans under me are drawn up twice a-day in my great hall, where they are instructed in the use of their arms, and exercised by the following words of command: – Handle your fans, Unfurl your fans, Discharge your fans, Flutter your fans – By the right observation of these few plain words of commands, a woman of a tolerable genius, who will apply herself diligently to her exercise for the space of but one half-year, shall be able to give her fan all the graces that can possibly enter into that little modish machine… For the rest of Addison’s letter to The Spectator, please click here.

Commemorative fan, Nelson and the Battle of the Nile, 1804

Commemorative fan, Nelson and the Battle of the Nile, 1804

Display case, Fan Museum

Display case, Fan Museum

A lady’s fan carried far more symbolism than the mere act of cooling by agitating the air. At first considered a novelty, the fan gained popularity in Europe in the mid-sixteenth century and could be seen in the paintings of fine Elizabethan ladies. The folding fan, which was introduced from the Far East, gradually replaced the fixed fan. Made from vellum or paper, these fashionable and expensive accessories lent themselves well to elaborate painting and decoration. By 1709, fans began to be manufactured in London and a Fan Makers’ Company was established. Commemorative fans that celebrated an historic event were quite popular among the well to do, and their styles echoed the fashion of the day. Neoclassical fans, like the commemorative fan depicted above, lacked color and were generally bare of decoration, reflecting the simple white muslin dresses so popular during the Regency era. When dresses became more ornate and colorful again, fans followed the trend. They were highly prized for their aesthetics, for “in the ordinary fan of the present day Art has not strayed far from Nature.”

Goya, Woman with Fan

Goya, Woman with Fan

Over the centuries, a language of the fan evolved (see link below). Legend has it that by the time the Victorian era began fan gestures had been rigidly codified, wherein each movement and snap of the wrist carried a message fraught with meaning, although some experts dispute this. (See comment below made by Pierre Henri Biger, a fan expert.)  Once popular both during the day and evening, fans gradually became restricted only for the evening, increasing in size in the last two decades of the nineteenth century.  Their popularity waned and waxed as the quote below suggests, but until they could be cheaply manufactered in large quantities, they remained the province of only those who could afford them. In the late 19th century to early 1920’s, fans were made in profusion to carry advertisements, and were given away as souvenirs by hotels, restaurants, and businesses.*

Fan Design, The Lower Rooms, Bath

Fan Design, The Lower Rooms, Bath

For just a century after Addison wrote, the fan figured prominently in polite society, matched, when the sword went out of fashion, against the snuff-box and the clouded cane, and often victorious. The satirists and dramatists wore in turn bitter and pleasant in their references to it. Painters and their sitters paraded it ostentatiously. It is said to have done wonders in diplomacy, and who could wonder at the success of flying sap and masked battery against garrisons defended by an eye-glass, a pinch of snuff, and a malacca. The fan’s apogee was in the days of the minuet de la cour. But since athletic waltzes, polkas, and mazurkas have elbowed out their courtly predecessors, the once ” modish little machine” has retired into obscurity with the “wall-flowers,” or, if at all, is used by the dancers as inartistically as though it were the archetypal ” vanne” or wind engine. Brighter days may, however, dawn, and society which, in its way back to costumes of the Watteau and Pastoral periods, has already reached the stage of short waists and long trains, may over in our time reclaim the little exile from its temporary partial shade. – Nature and Art, by Day & Sons, 1866, p62

3 regency fans

More about this fascinating fashion accessory

from nature and art, 1866

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When one thinks of a fashionably attired Regency lady, one also thinks of the lovely fan she most likely carried. These graceful objects were first used for cooling, but during the 19th century they became an indispensable fashion accessory. Flirtations were carried on with fans, which hid blushing cheeks or communicated a specific message. (Click on ‘The Language of the Fan’ post below)

In the eighteenth century, wealthy Georgian ladies, especially English ones, waved [fans] at masquerade balls, and wore them as a fashion accessory with almost every outfit that they owned. There were daytime fans, white satin bridal fans and even mourning fans painted with grisaille, i.e. black, white and grey. Classical fans, brought from Italy, replaced the luscious rococo of the French. As well as drawing attention to beautiful and perfectly manicured hands, these items played a big part in delicate flirtations. In fact, a whole ‘language of the fan’ had developed in England in Tudor times which became especially popular for middle and upper-class Victorian women who were courting. A folded fan placed against a lady’s chin told a gentleman that she found him attractive, for example, while snapping a fan shut was a curt dismissal! No wonder that the sixteenth century English writer, Joseph Addison, stated: “Men have the sword, women have the fan and the fan is probably as effective a weapon!”- Life in Italy, Handheld Fans

The following passage was written in the U.S. in mid-nineteenth century America. It describes an oppressively hot day in church in which so many ladies were fanning themselves that they created a significant breeze for others. “One old lady must have been thinking of a dancing-tune to which her feet kept time in the days of her youth, as her fan kept time with a regular hop, skip and jump, not at all like any psalm-tune I ever heard.” The author goes on to describe fans made of red and yellow, or resembling a great palm-leaf, or made of a peacock’s tail or turkey feathers, their delicate  ivory or sandalwood sticks and guards creating clicking sounds.

Those two young ladies who sit where side glances cross very conveniently from the crimson-cushioned pew occupied by a single gentleman, have consecrated theirs to the most effectual display of their ruby lips and laughing dimples, and I am kind enough to hope it will not be “all in vain,” and, as I have hinted, really think fans are often put to a worse use. No insignificant thing is the little flutterer, whatever may be its form or fashion – how many smiles and frowns and titters it hides, to say nothing of the blushes that take shelter behind its graceful folds. Many an ague fit have they given me; yet on the whole, I am not sure that I would banish them; were they the authors of ten times as much mischief, for I think it would cause a flutter among ladies, that would be more deleterious.

Into what a consternation they would be thrown if suddenly deprived of this relief in all embarrassments; and it is a curious fact, that in all heathen as well as all Christian nations, it is a favorite shield of the gentle sex. In all histories of queens and courts and festivals, the fan is conspicuous, whether it be among the Princes of Christendom, in India or China, or in the Islands of the seas. The true reason is that it is so graceful an appendage, and so kind a helpmeet in a moment of timidity or an hour of idleness.” –Minnie Myrtle, The Ladies and Their Fans, New York Times, June 30, 1854

Top Image from: Hagley Magazine: Fan Exhibit

Diagram of fan: The Fan Museum

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