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 EventailChinese 1800's Qing Silk Embroidery Hand Fan Export China Trade Red Chamber YqzJapan 1800's Rare Kabuki Actor Ukiyo-e Woodblock Print Fan Bamboo Kunichika YqzAntique French Eventail Silk And Bone Hand Worked Fan With Originial Import Box!China Etc 1800's Lot 7 Shabby Chic Fans Mother Of Pearl Feather Brise Opera YqzAntique Italian Fan Orig Box Late 19th C Hand Painted Folk Dancers, Volcano YqzFine Early 20th Cent Chinese Porcelain Figure Group Couple With Fan Republic D3567 Rjsw Japanese Samurai Edo Iron Battle Fan Old Tessen Katana YoroikabutoAntique Intricately Designed Tortoise Shell Frame & Black Lace Fan. Very Old. Antique Signed G Masini Hand Painted Silk Fan Professionally Display Framed YqzJapan 1800's Meiji Export Silk Folding Fan Opera Brise Ribs Hydrangea YqzJapan 1800's Meiji Export Paper Folding Fan Opera Brise Inlay Ribs Figures YqzChinese Floral Fan Painting By胡净鬘(公元17世纪)Antique Victorian Bobbin Belgium Lace Hand Fan Mother-of-pearl StavesChinese Or Japanese Sandalwood Pierced Carved Summer Folding Fan Brise Silk YqzSplendid 19th Century Chinese For Export 1000 Faces Lacquer FanAntique Folding Hand Fan Black & Gold W Hand Sewn Gold Sequins Dramatic! YqzJapan 1800's Meiji Export Silk Folding Fan Opera Tasselled Brise Ribs Roses YqzFan 19th C Chinese Export 1000 FacesJapan 1800's Meiji Export Paper Folding Fan Opera Brise Blue Ribs Landscapes YqzAntique Souvenir Flamenco Style Lacquer Hand Fan Spanish Dancing Senoritas YqzAntique Victorian Round Red Retractable Oilcloth Hand Fan/eventailRare Vintage Or Antique Chinese ? Brise Style FanThe Fan Of Pine, Bamboo, And Plum Of Pure Silver. Oogi . A Work Of Takehiko Spain Silk Folding Fan Spanish Mantilla Flamenco Japonesque Brise Summer Yqz1 Collectible Antique Vintage Chinese Hand Painted Handmade Fan VanityAntique Victorian Late 19th C Black Mourning Fan Proper For Grieving Widow YqzAntique Black Ostrich Feather Fan 19001 Collectible Antique Vintage Chinese Hand Made Hanpainted Fan VanityAntique Late 19th C Havana Habana Cuba Torero Bullfighter Souvenir Fan Rare! YqzAntique Ivory Colored Frame & 2 Colored Silk Fan W/emblem & Black Lace Trim.Two Fine Large 19th Century Japanese Imari Fan Shaped Dishes - SignedRare Edo 1800 Japanese Genuine Antique Tsuba Of Katana "folding Fan" -614Vintage Antique Art Deco Flapper Girl Celluloid Ostrich Feather Fan Roaring 20sPretty Spanish Style Dance Wedding Party Lace Brocade Folding Hand Held Fan FlowJapanese Cloisonne Vase Meiji Era Gin Bari With Fan LeavesAntique Chinese Export Pierced Cow Bone,large Folding Silk Leaf Fan, EmbroideredChinese Painting Fan 'lotus' - ƱAntique 20's Art Deco Flapper Marbled Celluloid Folding Hand Fan For PurseAntique Late 19th C Hand Painted Tropical Paradise Souvenir Fan Made In Cuba YqzBright Red Japanese Hand Held Folding Butterfly&flower Silk Bamboo Tassel Fan1 Collectible Antique Oriental Chinese Lacquered Hand Made Painted Fan VanityNew Hq Chinese Wing Chun Style Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand White FanIsabeline Handpainted Fan, Paper And Bone With Its CaseKougai For Samurai Katana,inlay,fan,edo,silver-copper/gg015/Victorian Fans Aesthetic Movement Hand Painted Birds & Faux Tortoise To RestoreVintage Chinese 36" Ladies Hand Painted Parasol Well Made Wood And Paper19th C Gorgeous Antique-lacquered French Theme Fan/asian?Pj Vintage Chinese/japanese Style Hollow Folding Bamboo Wooden Carved Hand FanTsuba For Samurai Katana,kosukashi Fan,kiku Shape,early Edo,iron/gf085/Antique Black Plastic Or Bakelite Frame & Silver Sequined Art Deco Style Fan. Fine Antique Chinese Silk Table Screen Fan Carved Wood Stand Republic PeriodBeautiful Red Hand Held FanJapan Mid Century Bamboo Paper Red Mt Fuji Folding Dance Fan Sensu Yokohama YqzPretty Hand Held Bamboo Silk Butterfly & Flower Folding Fan Wedding Favor/black 1pc New Chinese Wing Chun Style Lace Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand White Fan Pretty Hand Red Butterfly Orchid Silk Folding Fan Pocket Purse Wedding DecorPretty Hand Held Bamboo Silk Butterfly & Flower Folding Fan Wedding Favor/black Vtg 1900's Antique James Regan Buissot Eventails Paper & Cattle Bone Hand Fan Vintage Lot 10 Hand Fans Variety Florals Black Lacquer Japan Silk Wood Paper