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 Faux Tortoiseshell Schildpatt Fan FStunning Beautifully Carved Antique Chinese Cow Bone Brise Fan - Very Fine WorkAntique Fine Cantonese Chinese Qing Dynasty Hand Carved Brise FanAntique Chinese Hand Carved Detailed Bone Figure Of A Lady With Fan,circa 1880! 19th Cen Chinese Export "bone" FanFine Antique 19thc Qing Dynasty Chinese Canton Hand Carved Brise FanSuperb 19th C Chinese Canton Many Figures Fan In The Original Lacquer BoxAntique Chinese Carved Fan EventailFine Hand Carved Chinese Canton 19thc Eventail Fan - Double Sided - Circa 1840Antique Victorian Faux Bone Brise Fan FTwo Chinese Fan Painting By陶绍源(1814-1865年)Antique 19thc Chinese Export Scenic Lacquered Fan W/ Hdptd PaperAntique Chinese Silver Filigree Fan Enamel Butterfly Brooch Pin Beautiful ColorsAntique Chinese Carved Fan EventailThe Fan Of Pine, Bamboo, And Plum Of Pure Silver. Oogi Suehiro. A Work Of KaeiVintage Fontange Pleated Hand Fan Green Gold Mesh Embroidered With SequinsTwo Antique 19th Century Chinese Carved Fabric & Bone Brise Hand Fans Sadly A/f Victorian Era Ladies Black Leather In Mourning Hand Held Fan In Great Condition!Chinese Antique Fan, Broken. Antique Large Chinese Carved Sandal Wood Silk Leaf FanLarge 20" Antique Cantonese Fan With Hand Painted Leaves With Lacquered SticksAntique Flapper Pink Feather Ladies Hand Fan Carved Handle Ostrich Feathers?Chinese New Handmade Lady's Folding Hand Black Fan Bamboo Flowers Wedding Decor1 Pc Elegant Lady's White Silk Folding Hand Held Fans For Wedding PartyLadies Embroidered Fabric Hand Held Fan Xmas Party Dancing Wedding Fan SequinsChinese Hand Carved Brise Fan, Eventail, Facher, VentaglioSpanish Style Party Wedding Decor Lace Folding Hand Held Red Flower Fan Brand New Chinese Janpanese Hand Held Flower Silk Bamboo Folding Fan 16" Antique Chinese Painted Feather Fan With Brise Carved Cow Bone SticksWow! Set Of 4 Beautiful Oriental Fans Hand HeldPainted Roses Antique Hand Fan With Decorative Plastic HandleChinese Arts And Crafts Materials To Bamboo Hand-held Fan Pink Butterfly PatternBeauty Chinese Wing Chun Style Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand Fan Red Vintage White Hand Held Lace Folding Flower Brocade Party Wedding Decor Fan Purple Japanese Hand Held Flower&butterfly Silk Bamboo Folding Wedding Fan TasseAtg Japanese Lacquerware Fan Box Black & Gold Birds Branches Signed Paper InkWholesale Lot Of 15 Pcs Folding Hand Fan,wedding Accessory,spanish , OrientalPeking Glass Carved Fan Shape Snuff BottleAsian Japanese Silk Hand Fan Pink Flower Folding Wedding FavorVictorian Style Light Blue Lace Fabric Folding Hand Held Fan Rose Wedding FavorD06 - Antique Chinese Carved Bone Fan Mount Sticks Skeleton - 19th Century Victorian Lace Fabric Folding Hand Rose Pattern Lady's Wedding Favor Fan BlackNew Hot Sale Chineseblack Fan Wing Chun Style Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand 1pc Chinese Wing Chun Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand White Fan Rll Vintage Chinese/japanese Style Hollow Folding Bamboo Wooden Carved Hand FanAleixandre Vintage Spanish Fan Bullfighting Mestranza De Sevilla SignedFaux Mother-of- Pearl Fan Hand Painted PearlizedNew Arrival Chinese Wing Chun Style Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand White FanHot Japanese Chinese Hand Held Flower&butterfly Silk Folding Wedding Favor Fan Transition Blue Hand Held Folding Butterfly&flower Silk Bamboo Wedding FanBeautiful Chinese Handcrafted White Silk Flower Pattern Curved Handle Decor FanLadies Embroidered Fabric Hand Held Fan Xmas Party Dancing Wedding Fan SequinsPretty Hand Held Bamboo Silk Butterfly & Flower Folding Fan Wedding Favor/black Style Silk Bamboo Folding Hand Fan GirlNew Arrival Chinese Wing Chun Style Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand Black FanChinese Folding Pink Silk Hand Flower Bamboo Asian Fan Wedding Party Decor1pc Rose Chinese Japanese Style Folding Fan Lace Hand Fan Sandalwood Fan Hand Folding Pocket Purse Sensu Chinese Dragon Pattern Feng Shui New Popular Black Chinese Wing Chun Style Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand Fan Vintage Celluloid Souvenir Hand Fan Asbury Park New Jersey ~ 14" Celluloid Chain