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    

Chinese Carved Brise Export Fan Eventail Qing Dynasty 1820 乾隆帝Very Fine Antique Chinese Qing Dynasty Qianlong 乾隆帝 Carved Export Brise Fan 1770Antique Hand Carved Chinese Brise Hand Fan Filigree Bone And Silk In Faucon BoxAntique Chinese Carved Fan Eventail Antique Chinese Carved Fan EventailAntique Chinese Carved Fan EventailSelected Paintings And Calligraphic Masterworks On Fan LeavesAntique Chinese Carved Fan EventailFolding Fan 53pcs "handpainted And Printed 印刷~scenery And Calligraphy" @s730Exquisite Hand Engraved Vintage Signed Japanese Sterling Silver Ohgi Fan JapanChinese Fan Silver-gilt Filigree Cloisonné, Mandarin Style,butterfly,bird,lifeExquisite Signed Japanese Figural Fan Shape Sterling Silver Pill/snuff Box Nr1910s Japanese Fan Sample Book 20 Woodblock Printed Designs Keinen,bairei,seihoAntique Victorian Tiffany & Co Silk Lace Painted Japanese Cherry Blossom FanA Small Antique Chinese Blue & White Pot W/ A Scholar Holding A Fan. Qing.39578# Japanese Kimono / Antique Fan / Set Of 5【japanese Samurai Command Fan】yoroi Japanese Samurai Kabuto Armor Mask MenpoAntique Aesthetics Tiffany & Co Silk Lace Painted Wasp Bumbble Bee Hand FanVery Fine Antique Chinese Canton Carved Brise Fan Florals, Boats, Pagodas, Bird39576# Japanese Kimono / Antique Fan / Set Of 5Tsuba Edo Solid Iron Katana Wakizashi Fuchi Kashira Japanese Sword "fans"Fabulous Antique Chinese 1000 Faces Fan With Very Colorful And Fine DetailsPorcelain Famille Rose Figure Tang Beauty Young Woman With Fan & Butterfly 1 Yqz39574# Japanese Kimono / Antique Fan / Set Of 51900s Set 14 Japanese Woodblock Printed Fan Design Samples Shibata Zeshin,goshun39577# Japanese Kimono / Antique Fan / Set Of 5Tsuba For Samurai Katana,inlay,sculpture,fan,wave,early Edo,iron/hh062/39580# Japanese Kimono / Antique Fan / Set Of 5Lot Of Mix 10 Pretty Ladies Folding Hand Fan Free ShippingAntique Chinese Carved Fan Silk And Paper With FacesVintage ~ Fan ~ Spanish Motif ~ Folding ~ Hand-held ~ LacqueredBrown Feather Fan With Enameled Black Lacquer HandlesBig Lot Of Vintage Hand Fans Victorian Hand Painted Silk Wooden Celluloid & More39559# Japanese Kimono / Antique Dancer's Folding Fan / ShikishiJapanese Traditional Tuan Shan "round Fan" Sensu (扇子)hand Held Flora Folding FanChinese Japanese Hand Held Purple Flower Silk Bamboo Folding Wedding Party Fan Vintage Folding Bamboo Original Wooden Carved Hand Fan Fit Wedding Bridal PartyVintage Antique Folding Hand Fan, Hand Painted Silk Over Wooden Sticks, Very Old39571# Japanese Kimono / Antique Decorative Folding FanJapanese Bamboo Silk Folding Hand Held Fan Wedding Dance Summer Pocket Fan Gift39558# Japanese Kimono / Antique Dancer's Folding Fan / Kanji CharacterOrig Japanese Woodblock Print Ukiyoe Samurai Picture Hakama,fan,strip Of PaperJapanese Vintage Bamboo Fan For Sencha Tea/, Nice Weaving C 1910/1920Style Spanish Flower Floral Fabric Lace Folding Hand Dancing Party Decor Fan HotChinese Fan Hong Iron Red Porcelain Brush PotChinese Japanese Hollow Flower Bamboo Folding Hand Fan W/tassel Wedding GiftVintage Folding Bamboo Original Wooden Carved Hand Fan Fit Wedding Bridal Party39563# Japanese Kimono / Antique Dancer's Folding Fan / BirdVintage Antique Folding Hand Fan, Hand Painted Fabric With Silver Metal HandlesBeautiful Chinese Satsuma Hand Painted Fan Shaped Lidded Trinket Box Chinese Bamboo Folding Silk Hand Black Fan With Flowers Wedding Party Gift Xmas New Spanish Style Pink Wedding Party Lace Brocade Folding Hand Held Fan Flower Pretty Spanish Style Dance Wedding Party White Brocade Folding Hand Held FanSpanish Brocade Floral Fabric Lace Folding Hand Dancing Wedding Party Decor FanNew Hand Held Hot Pink Folding Butterfly Flower Print Silk Bamboo Wedding Fan Rll 3pcs Paper Folding Chinese Oriental Floral Hand Fans Wedding Favours TableVintage Folding Bamboo Original Wooden Carved Hand Fan Fit Wedding Bridal Party1927 Japanese Hand Painted Drawing Folding Fan 35 Samples Art Deco Designs Original Old French Folding Fan In Box 1920s Hand Painted Silk Star SequinsVintage Printed Paper Fan - 18th Century Style Decoration - Very Good Condition