By Sam Mankowski (Intern, Summer 2020)
Hand fans have been in fashion off-and-on for thousands of years. The first pictographic evidence of fans comes from Egypt around 3000 BCE, though some put the origin of fans much earlier. The blog All Hand Fans posits that fans originated around the same time humans learned to control fire: “It can be assumed that the origin of the fan can be found in prehistoric times, when humans discover fire and use any kind of object to blow air and keep it alive.” Hand fans have had both practical and cultural uses since their first evidenced existence in Egypt in 3000 BCE.
Throughout history, fans have fallen into two broad styles, each featuring much variation in individual execution.
The first style is the screen fan or rigid fan. These were the fans first depicted in Egypt that expanded all over China, Japan, and India. “A Chinese workman whose name is handed down as Chi-ki-long, was renowned for screen-shaped hand fans, which he made by beating out a sheet of gold to excessive thinness. ‘He then painted them with gods, with extraordinary birds, and with rare animals; varnished them and covered them with transparent sheets of mica’” (Victoriana Magazine). Later, these fans made their way into the Greek and Roman Empires, gaining a practical and spiritual use in the Christian Church. These fans were called flabellum by the Romans and they were mainly used to wave insects away from the sacred goblets and to cool off worshippers. Much later on, this type of fan would again rise in prominence as a means to feature contemporary events and locations, like this fan (below right) from the museum’s collection depicting the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.
You may even see screen fans made today as a piece of cardstock or cardboard glued to a dowel or even a paint mixing stick, sometimes bearing advertisements for upcoming events or products. Because they could be cheaply and easily made, this type of fan, particularly in the 17th century, were popular among the bourgeoisie, or middle-class.
The second style, and the one you probably picture when talking about hand fans, is the folding fan. Both China and Japan have legends about the invention of the folding fan, both countries attempting to claim its creation. The Chinese claim that folding fans were invented after a Chinese princess used her mask to fan herself at a ball around 2697 BCE. The Japanese claim that, in 670 CE, bat wings inspired the creation of the first folding fan.
The imagery depicted on fans changed with time. Early painted fans portrayed biblical illustrations and later transitioned to depict contemporary events. Fans were also ways for artists to show off their work. “Many of the leading Impressionists – and indeed Post-Impressionists – painted fan leaves, the compositions of which were frequently inspired by Japanese art and culture, which continued to shape and inform art and design in the West” (Fan Museum). The detailed work necessary for painting on fans was a skill and the delicate paintings were part of what gave fine-crafted fans their role as a symbol of the status and wealth or their bearer. “Great maisons sprang up in Paris, which had become the epicenter for the manufacture of fine quality fans. These maisons would become bywords for the creation and distribution of objets de luxe, furnishing royalty and the upper echelons of polite society with fans of particular quality” (Jane Austen’s World).
This folding feather fan (left) in the collection of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is a wonderful example of the gentle hand needed to paint minute detail on fans. Not only is the painting small and detailed, the “canvas” (the feathers) has uneven edges where feathers overlap, not to mention the delicate nature of the feathers themselves, all of which make this beautiful artwork the more astounding.
Fans, particularly folding fans (though screen fans were not entirely excluded from this), became not only a symbol of status and wealth but also had very real practical uses, sometimes going beyond keeping cool or keeping away insects. Paper fans were sometimes used as ways to keep notes or reminders, acting as a sort of notebook. Some people even used their fans as autograph books, getting signatures of their favorite musicians on the blades exposed on the back of the fan. Companies even used fans as conduits for advertising. According to the blog Duende, companies such as Cordon Rouge and Coca-Cola used this method to advertise their products.
You probably have heard of the language of the fan, where it has been said that a touch of the fan to the right cheek meant “yes,” a touch to the left cheek meant “no,” running the fan across one’s forehead meant “we are being watched,” and running one’s fan across the eyes meant “I’m sorry.” The legend of the language of the fan is one of the most enduring stories of a historical phenomenon of the last two hundred years. It has made its way into the historical memory of many people around the world, but did the upper classes of the Victorian era really know, understand, and use this coded fan language to communicate with would-be suitors? Perhaps disappointingly for the romantics among us, there is evidence to suggest that the answer is no. Many experts suggest that the language of the fan was a marketing ploy to try to stir up sales for fans in the 1820s, since fans had begun to fall out of style following the French Revolution.
This blog post came about because of the number of fans in the museum’s collection. The Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society owns numerous fans, each having unique designs and something interesting to offer. One fan in particular captured my curiosity. When closed, it is just a simple black paper folding fan with black wooden guards. When opened, however, the fan reveals its true nature. A collection of small paper cutouts thoroughly covers both sides of the fan (left and below).
The small cutout images on the fan are mainly logos for different attractions and hotels from the eastern United States and even a few from Canada. Places like the Albany Club in Toronto, the Grand Hotel in Indianapolis, and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal are represented. Places closer to home, like the Murray Mill Hotel in New York, the Springfield Coliseum in Massachusetts, and the Hartford Theological Seminary, are also included. Some of the images are just names of cities like Baltimore or New Britain or Montreal. Others are small images with no text. A few are portraits of people, a few are coats of arms, and others are images of various objects like a wheel.
The paper cutouts adhered to the fan are reminiscent of stickers from hotels and cities that were frequently stuck to suitcases and trunks, the classic image of a well-traveled piece of luggage, or today’s sticker collections on the back of laptops or on water bottles.
Unfortunately, not much is known about this particular fan. We do know that it was made around 1880 and was owned by a member of the Herlebert family here in West Hartford.
Fans have played an important role throughout history, not just for the practical use of keeping cool or shooing away annoying insects, but also as a social marker of status and wealth. Whether or not the language of the fan is real or just a marketing ploy, there is no question that fans had, and continue to play, a role in our society. As Victoriana Magazine states, “So prominent a part has this little ‘modish machine’ played in intrigue, love, and scandal that it has been aptly termed ‘the woman’s scepter.’”
Author’s Note: All the photos in this blog post depict fans in the collection of the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society collection. All the photos were taken by me on June 24, 2019.