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    

Fine 19th C.cantonese Chinese Gilt Silver Filigree Enamels 1000 Face Fan Big BoxSuperb 19th C.century Chinese Cantonese Telescopic 1000 Faces Fan With BoxEstate Lot Chinese Bamboo Bitong Snuff Bottle Vase Fan Famille Rose Dish FiguresSuperb Antique Chinese Gold Gilt Silver Filigree Enamel 100 Faces Painted FanSuperb Antique Chinese Hand Carved Filigree Figural Scenes Figures Brise FanBoxed Carved Sandalwood Hand Painted Chinese 19th C Fan Birds Insects FlowersVery Rare Antique 18th Century Pierced Bone & Painted & Signed Chinese Fan 1720Superb Rare Antique Chinese Gold Lacquer Painted 1000 Faces Leaf Fan 19thAntique Japanese Mixed Metal Shakudo Small Fan Shaped Box3 Antique Cow Bone Chinese Carved Fans - Not Perfect ! For Spares Or Repair !Antique 18 Th Century Fan Chinoiserie Leaf + Carved Sticks Breaks + Repairs Fine Antique Chinese Canton Export Carved Sticks & 1000 Faces Painted Leaf FanGorgeous Antique Chinese Red Coral Kwan Yin Statue Holding Fan No ReserveSplendid Deeply Carved Chinese 19th Century Fan Structure Scholars FlowersAntique Chinese Hand Painted Fan; Paper & Wood Inlaid Mother Of PearlSuperb Rare Antique Chinese Lacquer Hand Carved Silk Embroidered FanThe Fan Of A Plum, A Japanese Iris, And A Bamboo Of Pure Silver. #112g. Yosiaki Antique Chinese Hand Carved Sticks Painted Battle Figural Scene FanAntique Xix Cent. Canton Chinese Hand Painted Organic Sticks 100 Faces Fan Antique Chinese Fan 1000 Faces Lacquered WoodThe Fan Of A Tiger Of Silver. #40.5g. A Japanese Antique. Sculpture Of Kenzan. Antique Chinese Export Scholars Fan Deeply Carved Two SidesHand Painted Antique Chinese Lacquer Fan Box People Landscape Painted Both SideAntique Chinese Fan 1000 Faces Lacquered WoodPretty Hand Held Bamboo Silk Butterfly & Flower Folding Fan Wedding Favor/black 1pc White Chinese Japanese Style Folding Fan Lace Hand Fan Magnificent 19th C.century Chinese Cantonese 1000 Faces Fan With BoxAntique Chinese Fan Hand Carved SticksTwo Floral Chinese Fan Painting By陶溶 ϼPh Vintage Chinese/japanese Hollow Folding Bamboo Wooden Carved Hand Fan 02Antique Fan Box Hand Carved Lacquered WoodRare Antique Japanese Lacquer Bamboo Sticks Hand Painted Scene FanAntique 1920s Rice Paper Hand Fan Japanese Japan Blue Flower G.r.kinney ShoesAntique 1920s Rice Paper Hand Fan Japanese Geisha Painted Art Vintage Oil VtgPr Soft Fluffy Fancy Dress Costume Showgirl Dance Folding Feather Fan WhiteAntique Hand Painted Fan Hand Painted Lace Spanish Style Dance Party Wedding Fantastic Lace Brocade Folding Hand Held Fan3 Antique Late 19th Century Chinese Carved Bone Fans Fan Ventaglio Abanico 1890sPurple Japanese Hand Held Flower&butterfly Silk Bamboo Folding Fan Wedding DecorChinese Antique Old Painted Peacock Feather Carved Fan Vintage Chinese Cow Bone Brise Fan Nice!Antique Fan Box Hand Carved Lacquered WoodAntique 1920s Rice Paper Hand Fan Japanese Japan Flower Floral Vintage Art OilTransition Blue Hand Held Folding Butterfly&flower Silk Bamboo Wedding FanPj Vintage Chinese/japanese Style Hollow Folding Bamboo Wooden Carved Hand FanPk Soft Fluffy Fancy Dress Costume Showgirl Dance Folding Feather Fan Black1pc Chinese Wing Chun Dancing Fun Folding Lace Hand White Fan Vintage Pierced White Plastic Fabric Victorian Painted Hand Fan Original Box-nr! Victorian Lace Fabric Folding Hand Rose Pattern Lady's Wedding Favor Fan BlackPr Soft Fluffy Fancy Dress Costume Showgirl Dance Folding Feather Fan FuchsiaPr Soft Fluffy Fancy Dress Costume Showgirl Dance Folding Feather Dark PurplePa Soft Fluffy Fancy Dress Costume Showgirl Dance Folding Feather Fan BlackSix Vintage Hand Fans For Parts & RestorationFine Old Japanese Gold Gilt Fan & Poem Silk Hanging Scroll Painting SignedVintage Bird Hand FanPretty Hand Held Chinese Japanese Silk Bamboo Red Flower Folding Wedding Fan Pk Soft Fluffy Fancy Dress Costume Showgirl Dance Folding Feather Fan WhiteNew Style Chinese Brocade Flower Black Lace Hand Held Folding FanBright Red Japanese Hand Held Folding Butterfly&flower Silk Bamboo Tassel FanRare Antique Asian Hand Carved Handle Straw Work Leaf Hand Screen Fan