History of Fans

A Brief History of Fans

Today, people tend to think of fans as fragile, frivolous accessories wielded by women, yet the origin of the fan was no doubt highly practical. Early man used a palm frond or other broad based leaf as he sought relief from the heat. He soon found other uses for his discovery and began refining it. He learned it effectively winnowed grain, the very basis of “the staff of life” and symbol of both fertility and the gods’ benevolence. The vannus, or fan, thus soon became prominent in religious rites, shooing flies from the early Romans’ sacrificial offerings or coaxing flames tended by Egyptian priestesses at shrines built to the goddess Isis. Its usage in religious rites soon led to the fan itself being considered sacred in many cultures including those of India, China, Egypt, Assyria, Phoenicia, Greece and Rome.

Rite and Royalty

Since gods were often believed to take human form as rulers, the fan soon became a regal emblem as well as a religious one. Chinese emperor Hsien Yuan (circa 2697 BC) reputedly used fans. Murals in the Pharaohs’ tomb attest to the importance of fans in ancient Egypt. In India, fans fashioned from the “eye” feathers of peacocks’ tails symbolized the vigilance and magnificence of the king.

Early Christian priests also recognized the practicality of fans and included a flabellum of fixed flywhisk, in their early services. Moving from outdoor or temporary shelters, churches and temples became permanent fixtures with doors and windows. Flies became less of a hindrance to prayer, and the use of these flabella died out sometime in the late Middle Ages. The fan was ready to move from the sacred to the secular, from the royal to the common.

Eastern romance

That move was facilitated by the Portuguese, busy establishing trade routes to the East. One of the many items they brought back was the folding fan. Although folding fans were not unknown in the West, the romance associated with them in eastern legend was. According to Japanese tradition, a man carrying an injured bat was amazed at the beast’s wings, each a large surface pleated into a compact space, yet capable of expanding quickly and moving the air. Recreations of that folded wing became popular in Europe.

Leading the vanguard of that popularity were the women of the Italian City states. The styles they admired were numerous: fans of alternating vellum and mica strips; decoupage ones, with vellum (fine calf skin) or paper leaves cut to form very fine geometric designs; and ones whose perforations imitated costly laces. The styles spread from Italy, to France, to England, and soon numerous craftsmen were busy fashioning sticks while printers and artists made the leaves.

The subjects engraved or painted on those leaves were not limited to the beautiful or romantic, but often chronicled current events, such as the launch of the first hot air balloon in 1782, or the French Revolution. Still other fans sported maps, riddles, and the latest dances.

Fans had become an integral part of a woman’s life, chronicling events of both the world at large and those of a more personal nature. When she became betrothed, married, had a child or suffered the loss of a dear one, a woman was often given a fan to mark the occasion. Around 1796, the invention of lithography, a printing process, made fans available more readily and at lower costs. Almost every woman could own fans, coordinating them to accessorize her wardrobe.

As styles changed, fans altered to complement them. When 18th century bodices had dropped to a deeply vee’d waist above full skirts, fans had also been large and sharply vee’d. Women of fashion after the French Revolution carried much smaller fans. The popularity of those eventails imperceptible may have been partially due to what critics perceived as a decrease of modesty, but there was also an aesthetic reason: the slim silhouette of the décolleté Empire gown would have been overwhelmed by a larger fan. For similar reasons, painted and printed leaves were replaced by simple spangled silks.

Of the times

Fans continued to reflect other changing aspects of their times. As homes and furniture went through eras from Gothic Revival to Art Deco, so did fans. A fan purchased by an early 19th century man making the Grand Tour—visiting Europe’s classical architecture and acquiring the patina of culture necessary for proper society—might purchase a small horn fan whose leaf depicted the Bay of Naples and the ruins of Pompeii. Travelling a few years later, he might instead send his beloved a Brisé fan whose sticks echoed the arches of medieval churches so admired during the Gothic Revival. Were he still buying during the late Victorian era, he would find fans whose sticks reflected the sinuous decorations of Art Nouveau.

Fans were products of their times in other ways. In the 1820’s, a machine for making the reseau, or mesh network, made lace fans affordable for almost everyone. London’s great exhibition in 1851 introduced artificial ivory. Celluloid and numerous other ivory substitutes quickly followed. Stronger than ivory and more resistant to breaking or splintering, the substitutes were easier to work with. Consequently, few European or American fan sticks after 1870 are real ivory, but are instead one of the faux ivories or bone.

Technology affected the making of fan sticks in other ways: in 1859 M. Alphonse Baude invented a machine to cut and carve sticks. That technology worked well with ivory substitutes, bone, and the light weight woods imported from the East. Those materials worked with similar ease on the new drilling and stamping machinery used to imprint designs on the sticks. Soon little of the work on fans was done by hand.

The two areas of exception were imported Oriental fans and those painted by artists influenced by Oriental styles. The Chinese had never lost their skill at carving. Perry’s opening of trade with Japan in 1854 caused a resurgence of interest in all things Oriental, whether Japanese or Chinese, and fans were among those interests. Impressionist and post-Impressionist artists were greatly influenced by earlier Eastern wood block print artists, and welcomed the challenges offered by painting a fan leaf: the curve changes the viewer’s perspective, and the artist has the additional problem of keeping any crucial element of the design from disappearing into a fold.

Portable billboards and demise

Whether machine made or hand painted, fans remained popular through the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Their popularity was so great that special exhibitions of them were conducted in Karlsruhe, Germany, and in London, with many renowned artists vying for prizes. The news generated by these events fueled the use of fans as vehicles for advertising, and one could find fans touting everything from corsets to hats, from snuff to embalming fluid, from food to farm machinery.

But times were changing. Soon women were voting, working outside the home, driving and smoking. With their hands as busy as their lives, women no longer felt comfortable carrying a fan at other than special occasions. The dull drone of the whirring electric blades and the hum of air conditioners replaced the gentle fluttering of fans.


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