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.