History of the Fan

antique fan


From the sixteenth century up to the late 1800s throughout the whole of Europe, the dress of no fashionable lady en grande tenue appears to have been complete without the addition of a fan.  So prominent a part has this little “modish machine" played in intrigue, love, and scandal that it has been aptly termed "the woman's scepter." Invitations were given by it, assignations were made; a gracious furl encouraged the lover; a disdainful furl plunged him into despair. To read aright this language became a necessity in the education of all fine gallants, who must know how to understand each movement and interpret each flutter.


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The praises of the fan have been sung by poets in various ages and in various climes. In England the great essayist Addison thought it not unworthy of a place in the Spectator, and in an amusing skit called "The Fan Academy" he describes "the angry flutter, the modish flutter, the timorous flutter, the con­fused flutter, the merry flutter, the amorous flutter. Not to be tedious," he says, “if I only see the fan of a disciplined lady, I know very well whether she laughs, frowns, or blushes. I have seen a fan so very angry that it would have been dangerous for the absent lover who provoked it to come within the wind of it; and at other times so very languishing that I have been glad for the lady's sake the lover was at a sufficient distance from it." Thus from its introduction the literature of the fan has been rich in satire, verse, and epigram.


In the preface to the Catalogue of the Fan-makers' Exhibition at Drapers' Hall in 1878, Mr. George Augustus Sala says, "If a thorn was the first needle, no doubt a palm leaf was the first fan." Ancient monuments show that such natural objects as the palm leaf and the bird's wing were originally adapted to this use. At shops dealing in Eastern produce palm-leaf fans were purchased exactly similar to those which are figured on monuments dating from long before the Christian era. Frescoes on the temple of Medinet-Hahan at Thebes represent Rameses III. (whose reign began 1235 B.C.) accompanied by princes bearing screen-shaped fans. These fans were semicir­cular in shape, painted in brilliant colors, with long handles twisted or party-colored. They served as standards, and were borne only by royal princes, or men of high rank and approved bravery. Hand-screen fans made of leaves and of ostrich feathers were also in general use. In the British Museum may be seen specimens with half-yard-long wooden handles.


In India the earliest fans were of palm leaves. In Persia and among the Arabs ostrich feather fans were in use early in the Christian era. Screen fans are mentioned as being in use in China about the same date that Rameses III was reigning in Egypt, and, as in Egypt, they were carried as standards in war. The earliest kinds, made of feathers, were royal or imperial gifts. Later on white and embroidered silk was apparently used, for we find  its application to this purpose forbidden in 405 A.D.  Ivory had been employed at an anterior date, and in the early part of the Christian era a Chinese workman whose name is handed down as Chi-ki-long, was renowned  for screen-shaped   hand  fans, which   he   made by beating out a sheet of gold to excessive thinness. "He then painted them with gods, with extraordinary birds, and with rare animals; varnished them and covered them with transparent sheets of mica." The fan is mentioned by Euripides, Virgil, Ovid, etc., and it is frequently to be found figured on Etruscan vases. Boettiger states that the earliest Greek screen fans were shaped like the plane-tree leaf. But in the fifth century B.C. the fashion of peacock-feather fans was introduced from Asia Minor, and was readily adopted by the Greek women. A fresco at Herculaneum depicts an ostrich-feather fan. The "tabellæ" mentioned by Ovid and Propertius were hand screens of thin wood; at times these were trimmed with feathers.

But none of these screen fans, large or small, whether made of feathers, of leaves, of ivory, or of gold, whether semicircular or tail-shaped, could be folded. They were either attached to long handles, like the Chinese and Egyptian war fans, or to small handles for the convenience of personal use.


With the last of the Cæsars the screen fan disappears from Europe, not to reappear until the time of the Crusades, when the flag-shaped fan, probably of Saracenic origin, was introduced, and continued in use in Venice, Naples, and Padua.


In the mean time Christianity had transmuted the fan into an instrument of devotion. St. Jerome had named it as the emblem of chastity, and henceforth it took its place in the sanctuary, where at the altar it served to keep flies from the chalice and the sun's rays from the celebrant. The "flabellum" thus used has come down to us in actual specimens— such as the flabellum of the Abbey of Tournus, figured in M. du Sommerard's work. The flabellum is also mentioned in many inventories, notably one of silk at Salisbury, 1214 A.D.; one in peacocks' feathers at St. Paul's Cathedral, 1295. They continued in general use until the end of the thirteenth century, and still form one of the most marked features in all grand papal ceremonies.


Closely related in shape to the flabellum were the earliest fans of peacocks' feathers worn by ladies. Such a fan is held by Maria Luisa de Tassis in her portrait by Van Dyck.


These fans are known to have been of considerable value. The handles were of ivory or of gold, worked and jewelled. The feathers were ostrich, peacock, or some other bright plumage, and the fan hung by a slender chain from the heavier girdle then worn round the waist. This mode of hanging the fan continued fashionable to the seventeenth century.

In illuminated manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries may be seen flag fans similar in form to that in use in Tunis, and in an inventory of Charles the Fifth, of France, dated 1380, we read for the first time of "un esmouchoir rond qui se playe, en Quoire, aux armes de France et de Navarre, à manche d'ybenus." Folding screens of this shape were used until the reign of Francis the First, when they gave way to folding fans more or less of the shape we now use.


The earliest representation of the folding fan—the fan proper—is found in the hands of the Japanese god of happiness. Between 900 and 960 it was adopted in China, and brought from that country to Portugal during the fifteenth century. During the sixteenth century it appears to have been in general use in Portugal, Spain, and Italy, from which it found its way to France with the Italian perfumers, who went there in the train of Catherine de Medicis. In England fans were an adornment of female dress in Henry VIII's reign. Queen Elizabeth wore a fan, and there is a portrait of her holding a small folding fan in her hand. It is recorded that she received a present of a fan on her birthday, and after her death twenty-seven fans were enumerated in the inventory of her wardrobe. During the first half of the sixteenth century the number of the blades in the fan varied in France from four to eighteen. The mount of vellum or skin was sometimes painted, sometimes cut to a lace-like pattern. The fan when open was a quarter circle. By the last third of the century the blades had increased to twenty-four or twenty-six. Silk came into use for the mounts, and the fan as then worn, is seen in a sketch in Fabri, 1593, of a French lady wearing the quarter-circle fan thus described.


Before entering on the several changes which at different periods were made in the fan it will be well to give a word in explanation of the technical terms used when speaking of its various parts. A fan is made up of two parts, the stick (la monture) and the mount (la feuille). The stick is composed of a varying number of blades (brins), which fold in between two guards (panaches), and in counting the blades it is not usual to include these panaches. The shoulder (gorge) is the height of the fan from the lower edge of the mount to the end of the handle (la tête), through which passes the pin (rivure). In proportion to the depth of the mount this height at different times has varied, notably about 1720 and 1841.

In the seventeenth century the use of the fan spread generally over Europe, Coryate, the traveler, writing in 1608, found men and women carrying fans in Italy. In Spain the use of the fan had become universal. In England the fashion spread more rapidly on account of the number of French fan-makers who took refuge there after the revocation of the edict of Nantes. In France for many years the trade developed so slowly that Spanish fans were largely used, and it is not until we reach the reign of the Grand Monarque that, after much petitioning and agitating, the corporation or guild of master fan-makers was established (in 1676), and the period began to which the finest specimens belong.


During the Louis XIV epoch the blades vary in number from eighteen to twenty-one; when open they form a continuous surface of ivory or mother-of-pearl, richly decorated in gold or silver. The shoulder is low, leaving a large proportion of the height of the fan for the mount. The painting is bold, the treatment broad, the coloring vivid. The fan opens out to a full half-circle. The mount is of leather, chicken-skin, silk, or paper.  A fan much in fashion belonging to this same period is the éventail brisé, so named because these fans have no mounts, but are entirely made up of the stick, which is painted, carved, or decorated with spangles. The most interesting specimen of this kind is the fan which Madame de Sévigné sent to her daughter Madame de Grignan, and which was exhibited at South Kensington in 1870, from the collection of Madame Duchâtel. Madame de Sévigné, in her 149th letter, describes the fan as we now see it, and it is figured in the "Blaise" edition of her letters. It is of the style known as Vernis Martin. The subjects are the "Toilette of Venus" and a "Promenade," and an additional interest is given by the fact that Venus is a portrait of Madame de Montespan.


Martin was a coach painter, or varnisher, who lived in the reign of the Grand Monarque. Mr. Redgrave, in his introduction to the Catalogue of the Exhibition of Fans held at South Kensington in 1870, thinks it probable from the evidence of style afforded by an examination of the fans known, as Vernis Martin that Martin not only varnished but also painted them, but no certainty can be felt on the subject. Indeed, what evidence there is beyond that of style (and whether Martin had a style is the point at issue) rather leads to a different conclusion, for a newspaper of the Revolution reports that a lady had erased from her carriage (as all were then compelled to have erased) emblems "painted by Huet, varnished by Martin."

Whether he painted or not, Martin discovered a remarkable varnish— hard, translucent, brilliant, and lasting. This he applied over paintings on various objects, such as carriages, sedan-chairs, snuff-boxes, étuis, and ivory fans. The secret died with him, and all reproductions by his imitators are very inferior. A most splendid example of a Vernis Martin fan was in the possession of Queen Victoria; it had formerly belonged to Marie Antoinette. Another éventail brisé, although not a Vernis Martin, belonging to Marie Antoinette, was exhibited by Monsieur de Thiac at South Kensington in 1870. This fan was ivory, carved by the great ivory worker Le Flamand, spoken of by Bernardin de St.-Pierre, when he visited Dieppe in 1775. The blades, twenty in number, are run on a slender blue ribbon. The carving represents the interview of Alexander and Porus. It was presented by the town of Dieppe to the Queen on the birth of the Dauphin (Louis XVII.), in 1785. When the Queen was forced to quit Versailles in 1789 she gave this fan to Madame du Cray, who was at that time keeper of her Majesty's laces. From Madame du Cray it passed into the hands of her daughter Madame la Bruyère, who at her death bequeathed it to Monsieur de Thiac.

Toward the close of Louis XIV's reign the éventail brisé was much in fashion, as were also fans richly decorated with gold flowers on mounts of silver paper. A very marked improvement took place at this period in the carving of sticks, due no doubt to the importation of Chinese fans, which now began to reach France, and which were used as models, or as sticks for favorite mounts.

During the reign of Louis XV the blades, eighteen to twenty-two in num­ber, were narrowed and put further apart. Toward 1720 the shoulder was raised, leaving in the length of the fan less space to the mount. The fan also no longer opened to the full half-circle.

The width to which a fan opens cannot alone suffice to settle the period or the country to which it belongs. Many Dutch and English fans open but to two-thirds of the half-circle, and a fan of this fashion may even be French, and yet not be a Louis XV fan. As frequently happens, a part of the fan may be missing, and so it may no longer extend to its original half-circle; less frequently some of the blades of the stick are absent. But a careful examination will usually show whether this is the case, or whether, as is often done, the absent part has been more or less skillfully replaced.

The mounts of the Louis XV period are much less boldly treated—the figures are smaller, the paintings, frequently in medallions, are surrounded or joined by festoons of flowers. To this period belong the fans called "Cabriolet." In these the mount is in two parts, the lower and narrower mount being half-way up the stick, the second mount in the usual place at the top of the stick.


In the reign of Louis XVI the fan again opened to the full half-circle. The blades were made narrower, they were wider apart, and varied in number from twelve to fourteen, sixteen, or more. The depth of the mount remained as in the previous reign. An exquisite example with the subject, Jupiter and Callisto, is attributed to the pencil of Greuze, with two other charming cartouches attributed to Boucher.

The greatest difficulty exists to determine to whose hand is due the painting on many a fan which the owner unhesitatingly asserts to be by Watteau or by Boucher. Monsieur Roudot has found but one fan which had any claims to having been painted by Watteau, it had never been folded; the subject was a harlequinade. Examples by Boucher are almost as scarce. In the Galerie des Dessins at the Louvre are designs for fans by Raymond de Lafage. The fact is that few painters of eminence have ever touched these delicate toys.


Diderot, in his "Salon" of 1767, said of an artist whose style combined hardness with undue finish, "Toutes vos petites compositions ne sont que de riches écrans, de précieux éventails." And yet the cost of some fans is so great as to encourage the belief that their production is due to a master-hand. Mr. Sala speaks of one once possessed by Madame de Pompadour, the mount of which alone remains, that cost nine years of labor and £6000 in money. It is of paper most elaborately cut to imitate lace, and is exquisitely painted with five large and several small miniatures, the centre compartment commemorating "La puce de Mlle. Desroches."

It was in 1579 that Étienne Pasquier, in a gathering of wits at Poitiers, perceived a flea on the neck of Mlle. Desroches, and exclaimed that "la petite bestiole" deserved to be immortalized. The idea was received with acclamation, and the result was a collection of poems in Greek, Latin, French, Spanish, and Italian, which was published in Paris in 1582 under the title La Pulce de Mademoiselle Desroches. According to La Monnaye, the best lines were from the pen of the lady herself. 


During the Louis XVI period many fans were executed in imitation of the Chinese. Gold and colored spangles became fashionable as enrichments to needlework embroidery. The guards were often mounted with figures set in motion by a pin underneath.

We now reach a long period of decadence. The éventail brisé again became fashionable, and the fan carried by a "Merveilleuse" or an "Incroyable" was almost imperceptible.

It is asserted that Charlotte Corday killed Marat without letting go her fan, which she continued to hold in one hand, while with the other she plunged the dagger into the breast of the monster. During the Revolutionary and Consulate period sandal and cedar wood fans cut in fret-work were greatly in fashion. They were usually mounted with medallions engraved by Bartolozzi and others, with portraits of Louis XVI, Lafayette, or scenes such as the taking of the Bastile printed in colors.

During the whole of these several periods the many beautiful examples of fans produced in Holland, Italy, and Spain may be easily recognized by the impress they bear of the art and style of those countries. All the finest skins, known as "chicken-skin," although the skin was kid's skin subject to peculiar treatment (art lost since the time of Louis XVI, when silk mounts came into fashion), were brought from Italy. Painted sticks also were in much favor for Italian fans.

Spanish fans had usually richly colored mounts, with paintings representing some incidents of love or gallantry; the sticks, sometimes of mother-of-pearl, sometimes of horn, were elaborately carved, and usually ornamented with gold.


The Dutch treatment, again, is so characteristic as to be hardly mistaken. The fan belonged to a daughter of Bishop Unmet, who in 1688 accompanied "William III from Holland in his expedition to England. It is preserved in its original case of black shagreen.

The immigration of foreign workmen, the trade with China, the communication with Holland, combined to give to the fan in England a very mixed character, so that it is almost impossible to fix with certainty the date of a specimen, unless— as is likely to be the case—it is painted or decorated so as to connect it with some contemporary event.

In the reign of Queen Anne the London manufacturers obtained a charter of incorporation, and from that time the trade of fans within the city was limited to members of the corporation. There is a fan case with a label on which announces that "Robt. Clarke, Fan-Maker to their Royal Highnesses the Duchess and Princess of Gloucester, at his Warehouse No. 26 Strand, near Charing Cross, is sole proprietor of the Fanology, or Conversation Fan; with these Fans Ladies may Converse at a distance on any subject without Speaking."



There were fortune-telling fans; fans with the witty Lady Townshend's riddles and charades, with rules for various games, the pack of cards forming the upper border; programme fans, made of asses' skin, fashionable to carry to routs and balls. Indeed, by the early part of the eighteenth century it is evident that the use of the fan was general, even in the streets of London, and from this period fans may be said to represent and commemorate, more than any other article, the follies and fashions of the day—we might almost say of the hour.

To Gravelot is attributed a fan which is painted in body color on vellum, with the drawing of the lottery at the Guildhall. The design is similar to the engraving by Parr, and is given in Chambers's Book of Days. Hogarth's Progresses and his "Mariage à la Mode" were often pirated for fan mounts. A writer in the Gentleman's Magazine for May, 1753, speaks of fans representing "the humors of Change Alley" and Vauxhall Gardens, with the company. Another fan has a fan mount with George the Third and his family at a private view of the Royal Academy.


The illustration above shows a fan with a paper mount of Bartholomew Fair in 1721. The figure on the right with a star is supposed to be Sir Robert Walpole, then prime minister. Fawkes, the famous conjurer, is a conspicuous character. On the platform of Lee and Harper's show is the earliest representation of an English harlequin, dressed in the same fashion as we see him now. The boy picking the gentleman's pocket shows that the artist had not forgotten to represent that the picking of pockets succeeded the cutting of purses. "Indeed," says Hone, in his Every-day Book, "this fan print is exceedingly curious, and indispensable to every 'Illustrator of Pennant' and collector of manners."


After a long interval, a long period of neglect, the year 1829 saw a revival in the taste for fans. It chanced that a grand ball was preparing at the Tuileries, at which several "costume quadrilles" were to be danced. Madame la Duchesse de Berri had undertaken to get up a Louis XV quadrille, and was seeking everywhere for fans of that period. Suddenly some one remembered having seen some old fans in the shop window of a perfumer named Vanier, who lived in the Rue Caumartin. Vanier had collected old fans for some time as an amateur. His fans were taken to the palace; in the quadrille they created a furor, and were all purchased. The Duchesse de Bern's ball began the renaissance of the fan.


Another inspiration was seen in the revival of autograph fans. M. Achille Poussiégle relates in Voyage en Chine de M. and Md. Bourboulon: "There are fans of two kinds, open and folding. The former are made of a sheet of ivory or paper, and are used as autograph albums; and it is on one of these white fans that a Chinaman begs his friend to leave a sentence, a drawing, or some characters which shall recall the absent to his memory. These album fans, to which great or noted men affix their seals, become of great value."

Such were some of the fans in the Negroni collection, sold in London about 1866, after the Chinese war. They were richly decorated, covered with inscriptions, and were said to have belonged to emperors and empresses of China. Emblems, mottoes, monograms, initial letters, a dozen devices, readily suggested themselves to those who desired to carry in their hands a memento of friends, poets, painters, authors. What a shame that the thought did not come when Reynolds, Romney, or Gainsborough might each have left some impress on these ''women's sceptres." Then we might have gazed on a Siddons, a Farren, an Abingdon, with the same interest and pleasure.

The reverse blades are reserved for the autographs of musicians, in several instances accompanied by a few written bars of melodies which have enraptured the world. Clara Schumann, Rubinstein, Joachim, Henschel, Sarasata, Josef Hofmann, Christine Nilsson—what ravishing echoes the bare mention of each name seems to bring to our ears!


In the example shown above by Mrs. Alma Tadema these sign-manuals of talent have not been so separated. The autographs of painters, actors, musicians, men of letters, are side by side, or in some instances together on one blade.

Among the various picturesque objects that decorated certain studios, one is certain to note the prevalence of the fan. Sometimes a grizzly humorist, a stranded bachelor, in order to give color to "what might have been," would hang up a few time-worn feminine trophies—a fan, a limp bow of faded ribbon, a crumbling bunch of flowers dry as stubble, a dainty high-heeled shoe, and over them, in mocking agony, he writes: "Alas! Alas!"

The common Japanese fan, elementary in form,  was a moving influence in the awakening breeze of modern ''renaissance," that under the various guises of æstheticism first developed the "art craze" during the 1860s. By what happy circumstance the lovely fans of Japan were first whirled into the artistic move we do not pretend to say, "but it is certain that their advent was welcomed with as wild a show of enthusiasm as the intense disciples of the new culte ever permitted themselves to indulge in. At first they began modestly to adorn and brighten a few super-select but hitherto dingy studios. Not as fans proper, or even as fire-screens— as by many they were inaptly termed— but as notes of color, harmonizing elements of tone, and points of "sweetness and light."

Liberally scattered about, nowhere did they seem out of place except when used as fans generally are. Leaning lovingly from stray bits of old blue, they were likened by a new-born aesthete to Rossetti's blessed damozel, who "leaned out from the gold bar of heaven." They were to be seen tacked to the walls in timid groups, or sent careering in meteor flights from the floors to the very centers of the ceilings, and it needed but a few shillings to flood the humblest painting-room with color and make it glow with light.

The first importation of these delightful bagatelles was by far the best that ever came. Exquisite in quaint design, full of subtle fancy, simple and direct in such drawing as they saw sufficient, they were lessons in delicacy of tone, tint, and freshness of composition to many a school-trained artist who before had flattered himself that he knew most things worth knowing. By this happy introduction the key-note was struck by which certain "coming men" startled the contented doze of the Philistines of England and France into wide­awake wonder as to the source of inspiration whence came those vagaries of mysterious design and subtle simplicity of touch and color. Those who already knew and loved the tottering lily and the radiant sunflower smiled as they recognized the spring; but all the same they gave welcome to the little art breeze fresh wafted from almond-blossom land.

But to return to the fan proper. As already said, in its first progress through Europe, France seemed by election to be chosen as the home of the fan. In no other country were dress fans so costly. Artists of great note condescended to embellish these charming playthings. Both Gérôme and Hamon painted fans for the Empress of the French and the Princess Mathilde. Gustave Doré also executed several fan mounts. The Parisian fan-maker was, so to speak, the inventor or designer. He decided on the nature of the mount, whether to be painted or of silk or lace, the style of the stick, its decoration, and its carving. And the several parts having been produced under his guidance, he combined the whole with a directing taste which stamped his individuality on a work of art. [Author: Louisa Parr]