Back in 1325 B.C.E., when King Tut ruled Egypt, minions would keep the air around the young pharaoh cool and insect-free with the aid of long-handled fans. Roughly 3,000 years later, fans were still being used to keep pests at bay, only this time they were held by young Victorian women, who would shoo away unworthy suitors by slowly fanning themselves. "Don’t waste your time," was the explicit, ego-deflating message.

When we think of fans, we are usually thinking of the folding varieties. But folding fans are a relatively recent development in the vast fan timeline. Once they arrived in the West in the 17th century, however, they quickly took over.

Regardless of what they are made of, most folding fans have the same basic parts. The piece that’s most visible to the eye, and the source of decorative expression for fan makers, is the leaf, which is creased so that it compacts into a little package within the fan’s monture, which includes the sticks, ribs, and outside guards. A pivot anchors the bottom of the fan, which is also known as the head, and that’s about it. Everything else is decoration.

If your leaf was constructed out of ostrich feathers, then most of your decoration was already done. During the Victorian era, ostrich feathers dyed in a rainbow of colors were attached to ivory or tortoise-shell sticks. With the advent of plastic, these precious materials were replaced by celluloid, and some of these celluloid sticks were so wide that they doubled as the fan’s leaf. By the 1920s, Bakelite began to replace celluloid.

Satin was another popular leaf material. Creamy tones lent themselves to hand-painted scenes and still-life studies. Paper leaves were routinely lithographed, often with depictions of life in the preceding centuries. Ecru and silks were given light treatments of delicate painted flowers, while leaves made of Brussels lace and lace-like wood were usually left alone.

One name that is not immediately associated with fans is the Russian firm of Fabergé. Known for its imperial Easter eggs, Fabergé fans are museum pieces today for their ornate sticks. Inside sticks were often produced from mother of pearl with a gold inlay. The outside guard sticks were sometimes made of gold inlaid with enamel and studded with heart-shaped diamonds.

In China, painted hand fans came into their own during the Song Dynasty, between the years 960 and 1279. Personal bian mian fans, used to cover the face, were rigid and rounded, usually made of silk stretched over a wooden frame. The handles might be made of black lacquered wood, or perhaps a stick of ivory. Folding fans ranged from ones made of sheets of paper that were glued to a radiating network of slender ribs, to brisé fans, with elongated leaves of wood or ivory that were held together at their ends by silk thread...

Chinese fans were popular especially popular in the West at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Because bian mian fans were inexpensive to produce, a variety of companies made them to promote their products and services. For example, Coca-Cola gave away advertising fans to its customers, Pan Am made fans printed with maps of its routes to Asian, and countless local insurance companies and furniture stores made hand fans with their company’s name on one side and a nostalgic print of life in a more carefree time on the other.

Japanese fans also included rigid and folding types. The most common rigid fans are known as uchiwa, which like the Chinese bian mian fans are often used as a surface for advertising. More formal rigid fans are called gunbai. Japanese folding fans are called sensu or ogi, with hiogi being the word for folding fans produced for the court and made out of hinoki, which is Japanese cypress.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Anna Checcoli's homage to the beauty and art of hand fans ('ventagli,' in Italian). Use the left-hand nav to browse… [read review or visit site]

A German collector's excellent gallery of vintage hand fans from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Features high r… [read review or visit site]

Dr. David Fleishman's comprehensive spectacles site (over 3500 images), in collaboration with museums around the wo… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Chinese Carved Fan EventailLarge Antique Chinese Carved Sandal Wood Asymmetrical 100 Faces Leaf FanRare Large Antique Chinese Gold Lacquer Silk Embroidered Asymmetrical Fan BoxAntique Victorian Cow Bone Hand Held FanBeautiful Antique Pierced, Carved & Fretted Chinese Brise Fan - Canton C1800Superb Antique Chinese Hand Deep Carved & Silk Embroidered Birds Fan EmbroideryFine Antique Chinese Hand Carved Sandal Wood Figural Scene Brise Fan Qing 19thRare Antique 18th Chinese Or Chinoiseries European Hand Carved Painted FanFine Antique Chinese Gold Lacquer Painted 100 Faces Figural Bird Leaf FanAntique Japanese Shibayama Inlay Bone Fan FAntique Chinese Canton Lacquered Fan 19th CenturyChinese Fan Painting Of Calligraphy ŐAntique Chinese Fan BrisRare 18th Antique Chinese Or Chinoiseries European Hand Painted Scene Leaf FanAntique Painted Chinese Marriage Hand Fan Love Token With Love HeartsFine Antique Chinese Gold Lacquered Figural Scene Brise Fan Qing DynastyFine 19th C.cantonese Chinese Gilt Silver Filigree Enamels 1000 Face Fan Big BoxAntique Chinese 19th / 20th Century Qing Round Silk Fan Painting Signed TeapotSuperb 19th C.century Chinese Cantonese Telescopic 1000 Faces Fan With BoxAntique Vtg Chinese Export Hand Painted Heron Bird On Mop Silver Fan Brooch PinAntique French Or Brussels Lace Fan W/ Jeweled Handle And TasslesAntique 19th Century Hand Carved/pierced Chinese Old Fan Brise Cow Bone1900's Duck Feather Brise Hand Fan. Burlesque, Costume, Decorative. LovelyAntique Chinese Bone Brise Hand Fan, Circa 1850Antique Late 19th Century Chinese Carved Bone Embroidered Export Silk Fan 1890sChinese Paper Fan Shape Hand PaintingLovely Antique Chinese Carved Cow Bone & Painted Feather FanFor Your Consideration A Vintage Chinese Carved Cow Bone BrisAntique Large Exquisitely Hand Painted Oriental Fan Chinese Caligraphy Signed XVintage Van Cleef & Arpels Women's Silk Fan In Original Box Near Mint RareVintage Folding Hand Fan Black Spanish Lace Gold Painted Celluloid Faux TortoiseLot Of 7 Pretty Ladies Folding Hand Fan Free ShippingPurple Japanese Hand Held Flower&butterfly Silk Bamboo Folding Wedding Fan TasseAntique Or Vintage Lot, Decorated Chopsticks, Hairpin, Carved Bead, Fan HandleLot Of 3 Pretty Ladies Folding Hand Fan Free ShippingVintage Antique Lace Hand Fan Gold Painted Celluloid Frame Courting Love ScenesFine Antique Japanese Gold Lacquer Bamboo Sticks Landscape Leaf FanVintage Antique Old Chinese Laquer Wood Hand Fan Box Only Painted Birds FlowersChinese Japanese Hand Held Penoy Flower Silk Bamboo Folding Wedding Favor FanGorgeous Antique Chinese Red Coral Kwan Yin Statue Holding Fan No ReserveFine Old Chinese Fan Silk Embroidered Dragon Vintage Antique Carved Hand Fan2 Antique Fans Mother Of Pearl French Ivory Very Pretty Both For One Bid Fine 19th / 20th Century Antique Japanese Hanging Scroll - Fan - SignedJapanese Hanging Scroll "fan" @u278Purple Japanese Hand Held Flower&butterfly Silk Bamboo Folding Fan Wedding DecorChinese Folding Pink Silk Hand Flower Bamboo Asian Fan Wedding Party DecorBeautiful Folding Hand Bamboo Flowers Silk Fan Wedding Party Decor Pr Soft Fluffy Fancy Dress Costume Showgirl Dance Folding Feather Fan FuchsiaAntique Edwardian Small Baby Blue Hand Painted Celluloid Hand Fan, 5.5" TallVintage Chinese Silk Hand Fold Bamboo Floral Round Hand Fan -blueChinese Fashion Wing Chun Style Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand Blue FanSpanish Style Flamenco Dance Party Wedding Lace Silk Folding Hand Held Fan WhiteLight Hot Pink Hand Held Bamboo Silk Butterfly & Flower Folding Fan Wedding FavoAntique Mother Of Pearl And Silk Fan For Restoration RepairNew Arrival Japanese Hand Held Hot Red Flower&butterfly Silk Bamboo Folding FanHand Held Hot Pink Flower Golden Lace Wedding Dancing Lady's Fan GiftSandalwood Fan Hand Folding Pocket Purse Sensu Chinese Dragon Pattern Feng Shui 1pc Chinese Wing Chun Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand White Fan Purple Hand Held Bamboo Silk Butterfly & Flower Folding Fan Wedding FavorBeautiful Sapphire Blue Silk Hand Held Flower Folding Bamboo Curved Handle Fan