Forget the cooling action; these ingenious devices signaled other than comfortable climate. With a flick of the wrist, they played havoc with an aspiring suitor’s blood pressure. 18thC literary wit Joseph Addison noted in the Spectator that Woman are armed with fans as men with swords and sometimes do more execution with them.” But alas, it was historical man who first discovered the comforts of fanning.
For thousands of years before Addison’s witty remarks, the fan had served both sexes, acting as a barometer of social and artistic trends. They expressed by certain movements love, disdain, modesty, hope and other emotions. Heavy wood and iron fans were used in ancient Egypt and the Orient to protect great leaders when they braved the outdoors as well as warriors trooping off to battle. They came in all shapes and sizes – squares, circles, leaves, feathers, cockades and folding accordions.
The Romans used shovel-shaped fans both to winnow grain and cool themselves while they worked.. They have been painted, engraved, etched, lithographed and embroidered or feathered; were made of fabric, feathers, ivory, celluloid, bamboo and other light woods, paper, lace, parchment, vellum, bone, horn, mother of pearl and tortoiseshell. Gouache, varnish and watercolor have been applied to their surfaces, along with sequins, spangles, silk floss and braid.. Not much is known about the exact origins of the fan except that they are mentioned frequently in the earliest of recorded history.
Most put the date at round 3000 BCE when fans first appeared. There are references to the frescoes in the temple of Medinet-Hahan at Thebes which picture Rameses III accompanied by princes bearing fans around 1230 BCE. About this time in China, screen fans were used as standards in war. That fans were widely used in Italy and Spain as early as the 14th century appears from the following passage in a letter of Guiez de Balzac: There is in my room an immense fan, hanging from the ceiling, which, during these hot summer days does admirable service.
Perhaps this was the forerunner of our present electric fan. An early form of the folding fan appears around the 15th century, found in the hands of a Japanese god of happiness. China adopted this type fan during this time. By the 16th century fans were in general used in Portugal, Spain and Italy, and were introduced into France by Catherine deMedici. Autograph fans, popular some 70 or more years ago, had their origin in China centuries ago when a Chinaman begged his departing guest to leave on the fan some drawing or sentence which would recall the absent one to his memory.
In 1866 some specimens of autographed fans were sold in London at $4,500 each. Early Chinese fans were made of bamboo-leaf and ornamented with bulrushes. Later Chinese fans were made of plain silk framed, then of embroidered silk or of silk, feathers and pearls, and were so fine they weighed less than two ounces. In Japan the fan underwent great manufacturing changes and improvements. From its leaf or tail-like form it gradually assumed the shape of the quadrant, and became handy, portable, and folding.
This enabled decorations of bronze, ivory, sandal-wood, tortoise-shell, silver and gold to be applied to the manufacture of the ribs which had been either enameled, inlaid, carved or engraved. Paper, linen, silk, feathers and transparent lacquer were used for covering. At one time Japanese generals carried fans with carved iron ribs and silk covers, decorated with the rising sun-the symbol of Japan. When ordering attacks, these generals would throw their fans as far as possible into the air. Japanese students formerly took their notes on fans, and as a greeting, Japanese waved their fans as a way to salute one another in the streets.
Egyptian 3000 BCE to 525 BCE
- Modes in Costume
Palace scene at Egyptian court c1370 BCE. The royal fan creates more cool air.
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Babylonian and Assyrian, 1500 BCE to 550 BCE
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Persian 550 BCE through the Crusades.
- Timelines of Kings & Queens
Form a panel depicting Babur the Mogul, Mongel Empire, celebrating his conquest of India in 1526 as an attendant keeps him cool.
- Atlas World History
16th C silk fan with ivory handle.
- Modes in Costume
16th C fans - scented leather in permanent folds and ivory handle; feathers; and ostrich plumes with jeweled handle.
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Queen Elizabeth 1 in jeweled gown with leather fan, 1592.
- Costumes and Styles
17th C fans - folding fan from 1720s, and feather fan from the first decade.
- Modes in Fashion Fans were a popular article of adornment during the days of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and when in full dress the Queen herself always carried one.
There is a portrait of her holding a small feather-folding fan, which was presented to her on her birthday. It is recorded that she said a fan was the only gift a sovereign could receive from a subject. From this remark it was inferred that the fan was the gift of a subject. An official list of her extensive wardrobe taken after her death shows there were 27 fans.
Other notable admirers of fans were the Portuguese princess Maria who married Phillip of Spain in 1543 and might have originated the flirtatious use of the fan. When the young couple, both 16, met for the first time, Phillip wanted to play a joke and dressed in disguise. Aware of this, Maria dressed in tempting attire – a sumptuous gown of crimson velvet, jaunty satin hat with white plums and a fan of a type never before seen in Spain.
It was of rare lace, mounted on sticks of gold encrusted with rubies, pearls and other precious stone. When the royal couple met, Maria coquetted with her fan, waving it slowly to and fro, using her eyes to float messages of love. Ladies of the court copied this as part of proper form but more so to charm their suitors in graceful flirtation. Mme. Pompadour had in her collection a fan which was a gift from Louis XV and which took nine years to complete.
It was elaborately painted with five large and small miniatures and cost the equivalent of $2,000, a small fortune at that time. Marie Antoinette who is thought to have originated the cabinet fan. She so treasured an exquisitely carved ivory fan presented to her from the townspeople of Dieppe upon the birth of the Dauphin Louis XVII in 1781 that she displayed it in a cabinet.
In 1829 there was a renewed interest in fans in France when Mme. La Duchesse de Berri bought all the old fans in a shopkeeper’s window [he was an amateur collector] so that she would have correct period fans for guests to use in a Louis XV quadrille for a grand ball she was arranging at the Tuilleries. These fans created such a furor that not only was the fan revived but the shopkeeper made a handsome profit from the sale of his fans.
And Empress Eugenie housed an impressive collection in her 80-room villa on the Riviera which she built after the death of her husband Emperor Louis Napoleon III in.1873. Especially prized is a large Spanish fan of black point lace over yellow satin which she always carried at balls. Another equally outstanding fan is a mother of pearl stick and fine parchment mount decorated with delicately tinted figures painted by the master artist Watteau. This was the fan Eugenie used to captivate, then capture Louis.
In the latter part of the naughty, urbane 18th century, elaborate fans were prized by upper-class women who used them both to attract and –as Addison properly observed – to repel.
They served another purpose in England. At dancing assemblies in London, Bath and elsewhere, it was usual for the gentlemen to select their partners by drawing a fan. All the ladies* fans being placed promiscuously in a hat, each gentleman drew one, and the lady to whom it belonged was his allotted partner. Lady Mary Wortle-Montagu, in one of her letters, refers to this custom: In the afternoon I went to Lord Oxford*s ball at Mary-le-bone. It was very agreeable. The partners were chosen by their fans, but with a little supercherie. The French term for trick or cheat used by Lady Montagu was no doubt practiced by the beaux of that period.
A lady*s fan was almost as well known as her face, and it was not difficult with a little connivance, to know which to draw. The same practice was in vogue in Edinburgh where partners were selected for the entire season by drawing a fan. Fan flirting continued in Spain and Spanish-speaking countries until recent times. The following extract from Vacation Tourists (1861) shows the thoughts of a traveler on this subject: I was vastly interested in the movement of the ladies fans at church.
All the world knows that Spanish fans are in perpetual motion, and betray each feeling, real or assumed, that passes through the mind of the bearer. I felt convinced I could guess the nature of the service at every particular moment by the way in which the fans were waving. The difference between a litany and a thanks giving was unmistakable; and I believe that minuter shades of devotion were also discoverable. Collecting fans received great impetus during mid-Victorian times.
Ladies of taste assembled noteworthy collections, many of which were later given to museums. In some of the better types of these old fans, the open part of paper was often painted with rural scenes amid groups of figures after the style of Watteau. The more costly were imported from China and were ivory, carved and pierced. Fans also found their way into creative ventures; for example their curved shaped and the fashion for Japanese decoration inspired the crazy quilt in 1884, and has been a popular design ever since for quilters.
And jewelry such as pins and pendants can be found in the shape of fans. In their search for fans, collectors often find added bonuses such as prints and paintings which reveal many styles for wearing fans. The outdoor or walking fan was large, a forerunner or substitute for the parasol. Dress fans appear in infinite varieties. Fan collectors note the many literary allusions to fans – Shakespeare speaks of fans as connected with a lady*s bravery, that is, finery: With scarfs and fans, and double charge of bravery. Terence, who wrote Latin comedies in the second century BCE, has one of his characters say: Take this fan, and give her thus a little air.
It’s obvious this 1775 belle in tasseled polonaise court gown is quite practiced in the art of the fan.
- Costume and Fashion
The French feather fan debuted in Paris in 1858. This one is white watered silk braided with gold thread and padding between front and back pieces.
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Portion of a crazy quilt with silk fan blocks and which contains a rare silk commemorative ribbon with image of President Cleveland. Ribbon was made for the Cotton Exposition in New Orleans, 1884-85. It is thought quilt was made shortly after that.
- Courtesy Pat Cummings
Ebony frame with shaded red feathers, 1880-90.
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Silk folding decorated fans and feather fans from Sears 1899 catalog.
All set for an evening at Delmonicos, perhaps??
-Elite Styles, October 1913
Uncurled ostrich fan with ivory sticks, 1920-30.
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All wool quilt of fan blocks is a stunning tribute to the fan.
- Courtesy Judi Fibush In the great Sanskrit epic poem, the Mahabharata, it is related that King Kila had a daughter endowed with the rarest beauty.
She had charge of the sacred tire. In order to further her father*s prosperity, she endeavored to make the fire blaze by using her fan, instead of her delicate lungs and charming lips. But It was no use, concludes the poet, the celestial fire not only would not blaze, but it almost expired; being taken with love for Nakarita, I could not live without her breathing.
In more modern times the fan has survived more as a memento or for utility; a tourist’s souvenir from a trip, a promotional handout at political conventions or for marketing campaigns, a needed air conditioner in hot stuffy spaces such as courtrooms during lengthy trials and to chase away the heat in tropical settings and as party favors for occasions of all types. Why did the fan die out? Many sociologists claim that the arrival of the cigarette, the cocktail glass and the air conditioner doomed the fan in the 1920s.
But others point out that time and again there is evidence that the fan was often used as a code for speech not permitted in genteel society. For example, a Spanish guide Fan to the subtleties of communicating by fan — The Language of the Fan – noted that placing the handle to the lips meant kiss me; holding it to the right or left cheek meant yes or no respectively. The advent and acceptance of the plain-spoken word and the emancipation of women combined to render such coyness unnecessary – what is gained in frankness has been lost in artistry.
Ostrich is still stylish in 1953 for that decade’s glamorous gowns.
- Modes in Costume
Gotcha!! If you are a fan collector or interested in knowing more about the intriguing history of fans, visit the the Fan Association of North America. fanassociation.org Good reading and good browsing – Book of Fans, Nancy Armstrong; 1978 – Fans: Ornaments of Language and Fashion, James MacKay; 2000
- For a list of fan language and other fan history by Nancy Kemp greenlightwrite.com/fanlanguage.htm – For assorted fan history, facts and links to textile history http://inaminuteago.com/
Bibliography Atlas of World History, Noel Grove; 1997 Costume and Fashion, Jack Cassin-Scott; 1971 Costumes and Styles, Henny Harald Hansen; 1956 Discovering the Biblical World, Harry Thomas Frank; 1975 Hobbies Magazine, August 1938 Kings and Queens, Fiona Macdonald; 1995 Lost Worlds, Cottrell-Davidson; 1962 Modes in Costume, R. Turner Wilcox; 1958 The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.
To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.
Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.