A short history of hand held fans

Fans have been used by man since ancient times with a handful of leaves providing a cooling breeze on a hot summer’s day or wafting a fire into action. In Egyptian iconography fans are used to symbolise majesty and authority. Indeed, they were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamen, with ostrich plumes and some with gold embossed designs and semi-precious jewels.

Greece copied the Egyptian fans until 2nd century BC, when rich silks were imported to the country from the Orient. Even more luxurious fans were created during the Roman period, with peacock feathers a particular luxury.

A handful of fans have survived from the Middle Ages and were used in churches (for fanning away insects, especially during the Eucharist) and for personal use. They were constructed from vellum or stiff cloth. In the sixteenth century, depictions can be found of large feather fans on handles playing a ceremonial role in papal processions.

Fans have also been used on the helmets of medieval Knights and as a crest on heraldic coats of arms.

Many depictions of fans can be seen in art, especially in the sixteenth century French Court. True folding fans were first seen in Italy in the middle of the sixteen the century, probably imported from the Orient by Venetian merchants.

It was not until the reign of Elizabeth I, who was a keen user of fans, that they became popular in England. Harking back to earlier times, many jewel encrusted, white feather fans were given as gifts. Elizabeth received fans from Robert Dudley and Sir Francis Drake. Just before she died, her household inventory included 27 fans. Folding fans reached these isles late in Elizabeth’s reign.

At the court of Louis XIV fans became an essential accessory. Etiquette dictated that fans had to remain closed in the presence of the King or Queen and thus the guardsticks became more and more elaborately decorated.

In England fans became more prolific again during the Restoration period. Huguenot fan makers fleeing from religious persecution in France were welcomed in England. In the latter part of the seventeen century fans became a required accessory for ladies in high society and the custom filtered down to all levels of polite society. Becoming a fashion statement, they were quickly discarded and replaced as new designs came into vogue.

Fans had been used in China and in the late seventeenth century they were imported to England in number. English fan making continued but the Chinoiserie style exploded with Western and Eastern fan makers imitating each other, with an output that combined anglo-sino designs. This market reached its peak in the eighteenth century.

The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers was incorporated in 1709 at the height of fan manufacturing in England and during a period of scientific, artistic, social and industrial awakening and enlightenment. Needless to say, fans mimicked life and their designs included everything from religious and classical depictions to cartoons, political satire, historical events and landscapes.

The eighteenth century saw the introduction of the printed fan to the English market. As fans became popular with the expanding middle classes so their rapid and cheap production meant even more events could be depicted. It was also a period when the Beaux and the Dandy could be seen using a fan, albeit a little plainer than the ladies’ fan. In Beau Nash’s Bath they replaced the sword for nobles of the Court who gathered at the Pump Room. Fans remained popular with men until the middle of the nineteenth century.

As fashions changed in the 1800s, be it to the Napoleonic ‘Empire Style’ of dress of the early part of the century or the fuller dress of the Victorian era, so too did the designs of fans.

Fan making had been a labour-intensive process but in 1845 a machine was invented by Manasse to fold the fan leaves, which improved productivity 100-fold. In 1859 Alphonse Baude invented a machine to cut out and pierce the fan sticks. These advancements helped to improve the quality as well as the quantity of fans.

This was also a time when the novelty fan came into existence and fans were known to hold secreted flacons of perfume in the tassel or small phials of medicine in the handle. A pencil could be hidden in the tassel and a ‘carnet de bal’ or note of who to dance with, in the fan. Fans could be adapted to hold snuff boxes or opera glasses and one example, for when the entertainment was flagging, allowed the handle to become a flute. Ear trumpets, packs of cards, barometers and thermometers were also skilfully incorporated into the fan. Another invention in the latter part of the nineteenth century included the foot-operated fan, leaving ladies free to embroider or read.

Fans continued in popularity, not least in Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan, and after the Boer War, ostrich feathers from South Africa became a popular import for fans. Similarly with the rage for all things Egyptian in the 1920s, fans were decorated in hieroglyphics copied from Tutankhamen’s tomb. Fans continued to be mass produced and used to advertise all manner of hotels, shops, theatres, exhibitions, forms of travel, and fashion.

The depression and the second world war very nearly brought the complete demise of the ladies’ fan. However, fans continue to be made, albeit in significantly smaller numbers, for film sets, special commissions such as the 90th birthday of the Queen Mother or the 100th anniversary of Ladies’ Tennis at Wimbledon.