History of handheld 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.

Early use of Fans

Long used for cooling purposes the fan or flabellum is known to have been used inancient Egypt in the 12th Century BC; in China in the 2th Century BC and in Japan during the 10th Century.  In theMiddle Ages one was used in churches particularly during the Eucharist to keep the insects away from the altar and also for personal use as is shown on stone carvings and in paintings of the time. 

The fans most well known in the modern age are folding fans; a fan with a leaf and sticks and another called a brise fan which is solely of sticks.  The fixed fan too is popular, this consists of a handle that has a screen or feathers attached.  Fans came from the East and are understood to have first arrived in Europe through Portugal in the 16th Century.  Catherine of Braganza, the wife of CharlesII, seems to have arrived in England with fans: there are prints made in 1662 and 1663 that show her holding a fan.  However, fans were already in England since there is a good section of ‘fannes’ in the Stowe Inventory which lists the contents of the Royal Wardrobe in 1600.  It is thought that Catherine de Medici introduced fans to France when she left Florence for Paris to marry King Henry II in 1533: in spite of her young age, she was 14 years old, fans could well have been included in what must have been a magnificent dowry.  

History of Fan styles

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.

The origin of the Fan

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.

The language of the fan

Over the years much has been made of the ‘use’ or ‘language’ of the fan.  In the Spectator, a periodical published regularly in London between March 1711 and December 1712, a letter appeared explaining ’the exercise of the fan’.

Although written with wit and humour the letter describes women using fans with ‘’an amorous flutter’’, it is likely this happened. The daily publication of the Spectator was not unreasonably estimated to have a readership of one tenth of London’s population: therefore, it is quite possible the journal promoted the fashion for young ladies to express an emotion by a ‘flutter’ of their fan. 

In March 1797 the fan maker Robert Clarke, who was admitted to the Company in 1756, marketed a fan with the title ‘Fanology or the Ladies Conversation Fan’.  With the comic dramatist and poet Charles Badini he produced a rather stylish fan, one printed with rows of letters, numbers and directions  –  ‘Eight different motions of the fan to express the whole alphabet ……’ and having familiar questions and answers on the reverse.

The fan must have sold well since by August of the same year William Cock, a fan maker who joined the Company in 1778, put his version of ‘Fanology or the Speaking Fan’ on the market. Some eighty or one hundred years later a leaflet titled ‘The Language of the Fan’ was issued by the London branch of Duvelleroy, the famous Parisian fan making company.  

The fan maker Robert Gleeson, who was admitted to the Company in 1879, was working with Duvelleroy at the same time.  Published as a gimmick, the leaflet showed young ladies a number of methods of communication via a motion of their fan.  For example, drawing the fan across the cheek indicated ‘I love you’ and to fan slowly showed ‘I am married’.  This language is the one that is found attractive today.  

The production of the Fan

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.