The Woman’s Scepter: Fans Throughout History

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.

Screen fan with blue print
A screen fan with a print of 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).

Blue feathers with painted flowers
A folding fan made of blue feathers with a delicate painting of flowers and a bird.

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.

70.67 fan with stickers
A black folding fan with paper cutouts affixed on both sides.

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.

Reverse of 70.67
The reverse side of the black folding fan with paper cutouts.

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.


History of Fans from The Fan Museum in Greenwich, London

History of the Fan from Victoriana Magazine

A Brief History of the Hand Fan from Purdue University and Tippecanoe County Historical Association

Hand Fan Wikipedia

Origin of the Hand Fan from All Hand Fans

History of Hand Fan from Lifestyle Lounge

The History of the Hand Fan from Duende by Madam Zozo

“Art of the Fan” by Joseph Addison

The Secret Language of Fans from Sotheby’s

Various blog posts about fans from Jane Austen’s World

Let’s Explore Elmwood!

The alliteration is just too tempting. We will be exploring Elmwood with award-winning architectural historian, Mary Donohue, this Saturday, May 26 at 10 a.m. Perhaps you’ve noticed the trend; when there’s a Sidewalk History Walking Tour, you get a sneak peek!

Enjoy this Excerpt about Elmwood from our traveling Exhibit (it’s not easy being addicted to alliteration), West Hartford Business: Images of Suburban Development :

“Elmwood is one of the first West Hartford neighborhoods to be a self-contained community with its own school, church, post office and stores. Elmwood’s earliest businesses, such as the Goodwin Brothers Co., produced utilitarian products from the area’s rich clay soil. The arrival of the railroad in the late 19th century cemented Elmwood’s position as the place for industries to locate, providing easy access for shipping products. The area was home to many international corporations including Royal Typewriter, Heublein, and Coleco Industries.

“With factories came the need for affordable housing for employees. Elmwood Acres was built as a federally subsidized housing project of 300 units, one of three built in West Hartford during World War II to house workers and their families. Following the war, the small ranches and capes newly constructed in Elmwood were purchased by returning veterans, and many small retail plazas appeared along New Britain Avenue. In 1997, the community group West Hartford Vision organized to clean up the neighborhood that had been blighted over time by drugs, crime and vandalism. Since then, Elmwood has experienced both refurbishment and new development that have led to its revitalization.

Image 1 new britain ave 1113

“West Hartford was home to many long-lasting restaurants, including Maple Hill, Edelweiss, Scoler’s, La Scala and Elmwood’s Fernwood, the only one of these still in business today. The Fernwood originally opened at 1113 New Britain Ave. in 1945 and was purchased by Anthony Cacase in 1949. Long-term employees Laurie Hazelton and August Audibert took over the business after Cacase’s death in 2009 and credit the loyal clientele as the key to the restaurant’s continued success.

Image 3 south quaker lane 942

“In 1947, as “going to the movies” became a popular pastime, the Elm Theater offered seating in both orchestra and balcony levels. Residents flocked for decades to see the latest Hollywood hits, but eventually new megaplexes presented serious competition. At that time, the Elm Theater found a niche as a place for second-run movies. However by the 1990s, with the advent of the VCR and the popularity of movie rental stores, the theater struggled. After closing in 2002, the theater was converted into a Walgreens amid protests from residents.

“In the early 1960s, the S.S. Kresge Corporation turned some of its more poorly performing S.S. Kresge stores into “Jupiter Discount Stores.” West Hartford was home to a few Jupiter Stores, including the one on New Britain Ave. These bare-bone, deep discount stores offered a limited variety of fast-moving merchandise such as clothes, drugstore items, and housewares. By 1966 there were almost 100 Jupiter stores in operation across the country. The S.S. Kresge Corporation changed its name to Kmart in 1977.”

More insights to come this Saturday! Get your tickets while you can. Walk-ins are welcome!

(Please tell your friends you’ll be joining the tour, too!)

Wandering Arnoldale and Beverly Roads

In the 1920s, wealthy business men built handsome new homes in West Hartford neighborhoods that lined the eastern end of Farmington Avenue. Two of these outstanding side streets, Arnoldale and Beverly Roads, feature homes that were built to impress. Their styles range from Shingle to Colonial Revival to Bungalow to Spanish Revival. On Saturday, May 19, 2018, we will continue our celebration of Historic Preservation Month with a Sidewalk History Walking Tour of Arnoldale and Beverly.

Every home has a story, and we can’t wait to hear what award-winning architectural historian Mary Donohue has to share with us.

Here is a sneak peek (sans spoilers):

711 Farmington Avenue

Ludlow Barker’s home, pictured above from a newspaper feature, once stood on the corner of Beverly Road and Farmington Avenue. Pianists will fawn over this advertisement from the Hartford Courant in 1903:

ludlow barker

Ludlow Barker started selling Newby & Evans Pianos in 1886. His plaintive enthusiasm for the product, laced with testimonials through history about the power of music, gives a sense of Barker’s personality. A particularly compelling excerpt:

I verily think, and am not ashamed to say, that next to divinity no art is comparable to music. – Martin Luther

The tones of a Newby & Evans Piano thrill one! They are selected with great care by Ludlow Barker.

1910-11-21 (Death of Ludlow Barker)

Ludlow Barker & Co. was operated by Barker himself until his death in 1910. His obituary in the Hartford Courant indicates his funeral was held on November 23, 1910, at his home.

Barker’s stately house at 711 Farmington Avenue was demolished in 1966. Farmington Avenue Apartments now stand in place of the home.

Though we won’t be able to gawk at what was once there, we will have the chance to learn more about houses like these:

Arnoldale bungalowArnoldale grey hseBeverly red house

Beverly Leach hse

Join us for the second in our trio of Sidewalk History Walking Tours of West Hartford this Saturday, May 19, 2018. (And tell your Facebook friends you’ll be there!)

More information on this and the tour of Elmwood (Saturday, May 26) can be found at

Walk-ins are more than welcome! We’ll keep you posted on a rain date – but hopefully will not have to use it.

Strolling Through History – Literally

Park Road, so named because the street led to Hartford’s first park, South Green, extends 12 blocks west of the Hartford city line to South Main Street. The area’s terrain and streams made it an ideal area for farming. In the 1920s and 30s, as the automobile increased in popularity, roads to and from Hartford, like Park Road, became more traveled. Population increases in the Park Road neighborhood led to new housing developments that offered a combination of single and multi-family dwellings. At the same time, numerous commercial strips and family-owned businesses lined Park Road to serve the needs of local residents.

To celebrate Historic Preservation Month this May, the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society is offering three walking tours of West Hartford! Architectural historian, Mary Donohue, will lead the forge through Park Road on Saturday, May 5, 2018 at 10 a.m.

You are about to get a sneak preview, of sorts. Some throwback images from the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society show just how much the quirky business district has changed (and a bit of what has stayed the same).

Rest assured, there are no tour spoilers below! 


132 Park Road.jpg

132 Park Road
(Jacobs Paint and Wallpaper Co. is no longer there, nor is Perry Pharmacy. Can you tell what businesses are there now?)


178 Park Road.jpg

178 Park Road
(My, do we wish we could get a brake adjustment for $1!)


185 Park Road.jpg

185 Park Road


202 Park Road.jpg

202 Park Road


338 Park Road.jpg

338 Park Road
(And it’s still a Shell station!)


353 Park Road.jpg

353 Park Road
(Now Park Road Cleaners.)


Parade 2.jpgIn the 1990s, a neighborhood task force worked with the town to help reinvigorate the area. New lighting and landscaping were installed and the reconstruction of Park Road itself contributed to the stability and growth of the area. When the repaving of Park Road was finally completed, a celebration parade was held to mark the event and to bring shoppers back to the area. This Park Road Parade has become an annual event.Parade 1.jpg

Join us for the first of three Sidewalk History Walking Tours of West Hartford this Saturday, May 5, 2018. (And tell your Facebook friends you’ll be there!)

More information on this and the tours of Arnoldale & Beverly Roads (Saturday, May 19) and Elmwood (Saturday, May 26) can be found at!

Who gets to use to the parks?

Written by Dr. Tracey Wilson, Town Historian

When my kids were little, in the 1990s, there were big signs at Rockledge Golf Course disallowing sledding and skiing on a great hill off South Main Street.  Now, the town has opened the course in a movement across the country to use parks in the winter as well as the summer.

In the 1940s, the town encouraged skiing and skating in the parks.  The town bought the 70 acre West Hartford Golf Club for $20,000 in 1943.

The town used the course as both a summer and winter venue. The Recreation Department set up three ski trails at Buena Vista and provided a first aid toboggan. The West Hartford Outing Club organized activities on a “Practice” and “Advanced” slope.  They also helped get the pond in shape for skating.


In February 1945, the ski committee of the West Hartford Outing Club sponsored ski racing at Buena Vista. Elementary, Junior and Senior High boys and girls ran a series of races in February with the hopes of winning an emblem for their ski jackets at the end of the season.

Buena Vista Skiers circa 1946

On the Sunday after Christmas in 1947, according to the Hartford Courant, over 600 people skied on the three slopes.  By the second week in January 1948, the town provided lights for night skiing. There was also a hill for coasters and tobogganers.


The Recreation Department offered free ski lessons to both children and adults. By February 12, 1948, the Rec Department counted almost 8,000 skiers and skaters.

At the same time, the town set up a skating rink behind Hall High School (the present Town Hall in the town’s center). The rink was three inches of solid ice on the ground, so parents did not have to worry about their kids falling through. On January 22, 1948, the Rec Department planned to add lights. Students at Hall could skate during gym periods. Residents could also skate at Fernridge Park, Beachland Park and Buena Vista.  All three places had warming huts for skaters.


On January 13, 1958, the Rec Department claimed 5,000 people “flocked to West Hartford skating, skiing, and coasting in one of the biggest turnouts in town’s history.”


As late as 1972, the Parks and Rec Department sponsored free downhill ski lessons at Buena Vista.

This year, the town has once again opened a golf course to the public in the winter.  What fun to go cross country skiing at Rockledge.  And, what about opening up some of these ponds to skating? Or having an outdoor rink at some of the parks or schools?




Share your thoughts in the comments section!