Ladies' Hand Fans

August 20, 2014 Posted by: Kathleen Moenster, Assistant Curator


JEFF 1446, 1447, 1448 and 1454
The origin of hand fans can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt. The folding fan originated in Japan in 637 and were first used in China, Japan and India. Italy started importing folding fans from the East through Venice, a major trading center for the Orient.  Their popularity spread through Europe. The vogue of ladies with fans continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and spread to America. By 1865, the fan was an indispensable fashion accessory for the emerging middle class, reaching the peak of its success in the Victorian era. The park is fortunate to have an array of ladies’ fans from the early twentieth century in the collection that show the variety of materials and designs of this very important accessory.

JEFF 1446 is an ivory and black silk folding fan with flowers painted onto the surface. Fans were often decorated with flowers, scenes, landscapes and vignettes.  JEFF 1447 is an ivory and light blue satin folding fan with pictures of children.  The three pictures of children look like they are reproductions of photographs. A Japanese-influenced design is painted onto the background.  There was a resurgence of home goods and accessories of Japanese style in the 1910’s and 1920’s in America. JEFF 1448 is a paper and sandalwood folding fan with a scene showing a house, trees, bridge and birds in shades of brown, rose and blue. The fan is bordered with brown lace and there is a decorative painted border on the sticks making up the fan. The design on the fan looks Japanese in style and there is a label on the back that reads “Made in Japan”. There are also 3 newspaper clippings with quotations from the Bible pasted onto the back of the fan. JEFF 1454 is a large black satin and mahogany folding fan. All of these fans are called folding fans because they are made from a set of sticks with a pleated leaf. The two outer sticks are called guards.  The guards and sticks are held together at the base with a rivet.

Throughout history, fans have been made from a diverse range of materials. Some of the earliest Egyptian and Chinese fans were made of ostrich or peacock feathers.  Leaves of folding fans have been made of animal skins, vellum, paper, lace, silk and other textiles. The first printed fan dates to the 1720’s. Tortoiseshell, ivory, bone, mother of pearl, metal and wood have all been used as guards and sticks. These sticks and guards could be jeweled, carved, pierced, gilded, lacquered, painted, printed or plain. Although the examples of fans discussed above are called folding fans, there are three other styles. A bris fan is made from separated sticks which are linked together at the top with ribbon, and the base is fixed in the same way as a folding fan.  A cockade fan has a folding leaf which is designed to open into a full circle and it closes into a single guard. The third kind of style is a simple rigid shape on a handle.

From the sixteenth century onwards, the fan was used in fashionable society as a means of communication. Women used their fans to convey coded messages that were understood by both sexes. By holding the fan in certain ways they could tell a man whether his advances were acceptable to them or not. They could say everything from “I want to dance with you” to “go away,” to “you repulse me” to “I love you” with their fans. This form of “language” was published in contemporary etiquette books and magazines; Charles Francis Badini published his book, Ladies Conversation Fan, in London in 1797. The book contained details on how to hold complete conversations through simple movements of a fan.

A fan can be functional, ceremonial, a fashion statement or a means of advertising. Until the mid-seventeenth century, fans were considered a luxury item, often made from some of the most expensive materials and jewels. By the latter part of the seventeenth century, the range of fans was increasing. By the eighteenth century, most countries were making fans of some kind and fan painting had become a recognized craft. Fans were now an essential fashion accessory. A decline in fan use began in the early twentieth century and fans became more of an advertising tool than a fashion accessory. 

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Last updated: April 10, 2015

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