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]

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    

29561# Japanese Kimono / Antique Kazari Ougi (ornamental Fan) / PineNew Costume Wedding Showgirl Dance Folding Hand Feather Fan Fancy YellowChina Pure Manual Painting Bird & Flower Fan Snuff BottlesRare Antique Chinese Hand Deep Carved Faux Tortoiseshell Figural Scene Brise Fan19th Century Chinese Lacquer Double Sided Fan With Original BoxSuperb Antique Chinese Deep Carved Mother Of Pearl 100 Faces Painted Figural FanStunning Antique Dieppe Chinese Carved Fan - Lily Of The ValleyAntique Chinese Gold Lacquer Hand Painted Figural Court Scene Birds Brise Fan Antique Chinese C1900 1000 Faces Hand Painted FanTiffany & Co Victorian Pink Silk, Ivory Folding Fan W/ Orig. Box ~ Beautiful!!!Spectacular Antique Chinese Pierced Cut Out Fan In Shadow Box. Antique Carved Bone Bovine Hand Held Fan Circa 19th Century Excellent!!!Kutani Figurine Of A Geisha / Bijin Holding Fan - Meiji PeriodAntique Hand Fan In Original BoxLladro # 4991 Spain Madame Butterfly Geisha W Fan Porcelain Large Figurine Hand Fans Decoration 玉清昆仑扇 三生三世十里桃花 白浅同款 宣纸扇 Kunlun FanAntique Chinese Export Carved Bone Bovine Hand Held FanAntique Chinese Export Carved Bone Bovine Hand Held FanVery Rare Superb Chinese Canton Export Lacquer Gilt Fan - Qing 19th C.1920's Blue Ostrich Feather Hand Fan 29428# Japanese Kimono / Antique Haori / All Shibori / Fan Paper With AbstractAntique Bamboo & Silk Fan Hand Painted LargeAntique Chinese Embroidered Fan Case, 19th CenturyAntique Carved Wooden Japanese FanVintage Lady's Hand Held Fan With Bull Fight And CoupleAntique Ladies Hand Fan Pre-catalan Armenonville Cafe De ParisReal Antique Carved Soapstone Figure Of Guanyin Reclining W Fan 2 PieceBeautiful China Chinese Antique Carved Hand Painted Old Pictuer FanChina Chinese Antique Carved Hand Painted Old Pictuer FanTiger Landscape Hunter Painted Kashmir Fan Glove Box Papier Mache Antique Nr Yqz29578# Japanese Kimono / Antique Mai Ougi (foldinf Fan For Dance) / Scattered Go29576# Japanese Kimono / Antique Mai Ougi (foldinf Fan For Dance) / Scattered Go20c Porcelain Hand Made Drawing Mountain Pavilion Landscape Fan Statue StandsChina Chinese Antique Faux Tortoiseshell Old FanVintage Floral Motif Paper Hand Fan Made In Occupied Japan 29572# Japanese Kimono / Antique Mai Ougi (foldinf Fan For Dance) 29563# Japanese Kimono / Antique Mai Ougi (foldinf Fan For Dance) 29564# Japanese Kimono / Antique Mai Ougi (foldinf Fan For Dance) 29568# Japanese Kimono / Antique Mai Ougi (foldinf Fan For Dance) / Scattered GoOriginal Japanese Woodblock Print Kabuki Actor Samurai Picture Onoe FanChinese Famille Rose Porcelain Hand-painted Holding A Color Fan Beauty Statue Vintage Spanish Folding Hand Painted Wood Fan - Circa 1940's #7c529570# Japanese Kimono / Antique Sensu (folding Fan) / Sandalwood / Flower29633# Japanese Kimono / Antique Bag / Woven Foldinf Fan & Floral Plants29565# Japanese Kimono / Antique Sensu (folding Fan) / Sandalwood / AbstractMarked China Nice Bronze Stand Taoism Lao Tzu Laozi Philosopher Hold Fan StatueEarly 19c Silk Brise Fan Hand Painted Peonies & Pierced Carved Cherub Sticks N/rNew Spanish Style Church*dance Party *wedding Gold Glitter Folding Hand Held FanNew Costume Wedding Showgirl Dance Folding Hand Feather Fan Fancy RoseNew Costume Wedding Showgirl Dance Folding Hand Feather Fan Fancy Glass GreenNew Costume Wedding Showgirl Dance Folding Hand Feather Fan Fancy Pink2.7cm Ancient Chinese Miao Silver Carved Yi Fan Feng Shun Lucky Ring Finger RingOld China Buddhism Brass Stand Arhat Mad Monk Jigong Chaigong Buddha Fan Statue Chinese Blue And White Handwork Emperor Holding A Fan Statues Gd8328Chinese Japanese Folding Silk Bamboo Butterflies Sakura Hand Fan Wedding Gift LmNew Costume Wedding Showgirl Dance Folding Hand Feather Fan Fancy Orange21cm Yellow Silk Hand Fan Floding Hand Fan For Wedding Decorate With Organza BagAntique Hand Carved Wood Gilded Frame Case For 19thc Hand Fan Painting, NrNew Costume Wedding Showgirl Dance Folding Hand Feather Fan Fancy RedNew Costume Wedding Showgirl Dance Folding Hand Feather Fan Fancy White