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Flirting with fans in Victorian Newfoundland

Maureen Peters, curator of history at The Rooms, holds a bustle pad while discussing how seduction and flirtation practices changed over the years in Newfoundland from the late 1700s into the 1800s.
Maureen Peters, curator of history at The Rooms, holds a bustle pad while discussing how seduction and flirtation practices changed over the years in Newfoundland from the late 1700s into the 1800s. - Juanita Mercer

Valentine’s Day at The Rooms highlights love and seduction practices

In today’s digital age, finding a mate can be as simple as swiping right on Tinder.

But in the 19th century, the art of seduction moved at a slower pace using simpler devices.

At The Rooms, curator of history Maureen Peters holds a hand-painted fan that once belonged to a woman in St. John’s.

A Victorian woman in St. John’s holds a fan.

A Victorian woman in St. John’s holds a fan. -Submitted photo courtesy of The Rooms

“Fans were big here” in the province, she explains.

Peters says The Rooms’ “huge collection” of fans from the Victorian period show “they were definitely used here.”

And they were used in specific and flirtatious ways to communicate with a love interest at events.

If a young woman let her fan rest on her right cheek, it meant “yes.” If she carried it in her left hand it meant, “come talk to me,” and so on, says Peters.

“There were all these rules of engagement to seduce or let somebody know that they caught your eye.”

Peters has been busy pulling love-themed artifacts from the vaults for a presentation she is giving today at 2:30 p.m. in The Rooms’ theatre titled “Love and Seduction.”

She’ll explain 18th- and 19th-century flirtation techniques, detail the evolution of fashion trends as desires changed and show some tokens of love from the artifact collection at The Rooms.

It’s the only time the public will get a chance to see some of the unique items, which aren’t usually on display.

Much like fans, Peters says a woman would also use her handkerchief and gloves in a similar way to communicate with a love interest in public.

“It’s not as quick as window shopping for potential partners on Tinder,” she laughs.

As for young men, they had secretive means of flirting as well.

It was fashionable at the time for men to carry calling cards — similar to today’s business cards, but usually containing just the man’s name and address.

“They would send little messages on their calling cards.”

Peters says if a young man folded down one corner of his card, for example, and left it in a love interest’s home, it might communicate that he’d like to speak with the young woman.

Peters laughs and says, “God forbid you talk to one another.”

“They would leave little messages without actually speaking. … Only for that, you’d probably have to go to your parents and say, ‘Can I go visit so-and-so?’ and then if they were of the same class or religion they’d say yes or no.”

Peters explains that these complicated flirtations came about because of societal rules at the time that were largely dictated by the ruling class.

One of many Victorian-era fans at The Rooms. This one from a St. John’s home has ivory ribbing and is hand-painted.

One of many Victorian-era fans at The Rooms. This one from a St. John’s home has ivory ribbing and is hand-painted. -Juanita Mercer/The Telegram

When George IV was Prince Regent, he led a lavish, leisurely lifestyle that was reflected in fashion trends during the Regency period.

Peters says women wore white gauzy muslin dresses that they would sometimes douse with water so the fabric clung to their bodies.

“In Newfoundland, there’s documentation of people doing that here,” Peters says, explaining the island was influenced by English and European culture due to frequent trade.

But by Queen Victoria’s reign, that more relaxed Regency period was replaced with rigidity.

“All of a sudden, everything went high up in the neck, down to the wrists and down to the ankle, and so this idea of wearing white gauzy material and throwing water over yourself was gone.

“There were all these rules about society, so people had to come up with trickier ways to flirt with one another. The way they did that was with their accessories.”

Twitter: @juanitamercer_

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