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.
It is generally understood that the fan in Europe reached its zenith in the 18th Century with France being the premier manufacturer. Fans with a vellum or paper leaf, painted or printed, and mounted on ivory, tortoise shell, mother of pearl or wood sticks that had been carved, painted or decorated with gems were an essential part of Court attire and for all Society occasions in England and in the Royal Courts and Society of Europe. It was forbidden to open a fan in the presence of the sovereign, however to make a presentation it was allowed to use the fan as a tray.
As well as fine fans worn for status and used for cooling, novelty fans were produced. A fan concealing a lorgnette in the guard stick was invented in 1759; a pocket fan using a sliding method to halve the size of the folded fan appeared in the 1770’s and there was a fan with a thermometer in the upper portion of the guardstick. In the 19th Century there were more inventions: a fan with a spy glass attached at the pivot and fixed via a clasp to the guard stick; a fan concealed in the pommel of a walking stick and a fan with a mirror or perfumed pad in the upper section of the guard stick are some of them.
Towards the end of the 18th Century a variety of printed fans were popular, particularly those with riddles, dancing instructions and sheet music, history, heraldry, botanical identification, opera seating plans and more: the English lead the way in this area with a number of the makers being members of the Worshipful Company.
Some fans of quality were manufactured in the 19th Century and during the second half into the beginning of the 20th Century artists seem to have been encouraged to paint fan leaves. For example, Phoebe Traquair and FrancisHoughton, who also worked in France, in Britain and Alexandre Solde and Madeleine Lemaire in France.
Few fans were produced after the First World War, although there was still interest in antique fans which remains the case today.
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.