In the days before air-conditioning, the use of hand-held fans was widespread and necessary to keep cool. Many fans were simple and inexpensive to produce, while others were more elaborate and made from costly materials. The pictorial record of the earliest fans stretches back thousands of years to the great civilisations of Egypt, Rome, Greece and China. This style of fan was a ‘fixed’ type, which did not fold, and was often used by both men and women.
As with many utilitarian objects, the hand-held fan evolved from a practical accessory to an item with decorative and ceremonial significance. Fans became symbols of status and rank within a community, a method in which the elite could convey their wealth by using fans made from carved ivory, tortoise-shell, mother-of-pearl and precious metals and decorated with silk, silver and gold.
The first ‘folding’ fans are believed to have originated in Japan between the 6th to 8th centuries. They reached their height of popularity in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when folding fans started being produced locally and imported from China by the East India Company. It is common belief that courtiers of the European royal courts were familiar with the ‘language of the fan’, coded messages a woman could send a man from across the room using simply a flick of her favourite accessory; drawing the fan across your eyes signified an apology, sliding the fan across your cheek conveyed love while opening and shutting the fan quickly showed a lady’s displeasure. Despite discussion of this communication appearing in many publications, it is now believed that this ‘code’ was most likely a 19th century marketing ploy by French fan-makers Duvelleroy to sell more fans!
Few objects combine utilitarian, ceremonial and decorative uses as well as the fan. Even if the ‘language of the fan’ is not true, I think I may just buy myself one anyhow; it certainly holds more charm than sending a tweet to a potential suitor.
Fans pictured are from the Museum’s collection.
1. A5421 Folding fan, ivory / mother-of-pearl, hand-painted [fabric], maker unknown, France [1750 – 1770]
2. 2009/73/6 Fans (2), coconut palm frond / feathers / vegetable dyes, maker unknown, Kiribati
3. A7456-1 Fan, advertising, paper / wood, maker unknown, made in Australia, date unknown
4. 18116-24 Fan, handpainted, paper/bamboo, unknown maker, Japan, 1880-1888
5. A7472 Fan and box, white ostrich feather, Schofield Collection, ostrich feather / tortoiseshell, B J Duvelleroy, 1912
6. 99/6/36-6 Fan, part of outfit, womens, emu feathers / resin, Australia, 1986-1987