Ancient history — “Not our sort of fan”

Few people ever pause to think that fan making is one of the oldest crafts in the world and that it dates back to the earliest times of which we have any clear record. The use of fans was already well established in the earliest Egyptian civilizations. This is made clear by the ancient bas reliefs in the British Mu­seum, which depict women carrying feather fans. There is fur­ther evidence of the fact in the Cairo Museum, where there still exists the remains of a fan found in the tomb of Amenhotep, who died as far back as 1700 BC.

The royalty and notabilities of the ancient dynasties undoubt­edly regarded fans as being one of their necessary accessories and throughout the centuries fans have continued to be quite important requisites in civilized life. The early fans, of course, were mainly carried in the hand by women and used for giving motion to the air for cooling the face. Originally they were all of the fixed type, made of feathers or of cloth or paper stretched on a framework of bamboo. Folding fans originated in Japan and were exported from there to China.

With the spread of civilization westwards, fans gradually be­came an accepted feature of social life in Europe. In the days of the Roman Empire they were a recognised item in bridal outfits. From Rome, fans spread to other countries, and by the 14th century they were generally in use in the European courts. By this time, however, a change had taken place in the purpose for which fans were used. They were no longer carried solely for the original purpose of fanning the face. They had become aids to feminine deportment. They were fashion accessories, used to accentuate feminine grace and aids to feminine wiles. Women used them to convey messages to their admirers by means of a conventional code of signals.

From then onwards, fans continued to be essential items in feminine equipment on all formal occasions. The centre of manufacture in the 17th century was Paris. But fans were also being made, to a considerable extent, in England. The revoca­tion of the Edict of Nantes drove the French fan makers to this country, and by the middle of the 17th century, fan making was a well established trade. In fact, the fan makers sent a petition to Charles II protesting against the imports of fans from India.

The manufacture of ladies’ fans reached its height in the 18th century. The craft had then become definitely an art. Being es­sentially feminine, fans lent themselves to extremely artistic treatment. They were made from ostrich feathers, fine parch­ment, taffeta, silk or fine lace mounted on ivory as well as on cane, and embellished with mother-of-pearl and precious met­als. In the Victoria and Albert Museum and the South Kensington Museum, in London, there are large numbers of French, English, German, Italian and Spanish fans. See Figure 1.1.

Ancient history — “Not our sort of fan”

Figure 1.1 A beautiful example of an 18th century fan

In more recent years, ostrich feather fans have been used not merely as a feminine accessory but as the sole covering of fan dancers. Fans of the feminine type had become so firmly estab­lished in the 17th and 18th centuries as necessary requisites for women, that The Worshipful Company of Fan Makers was con­cerned solely with the artistic side of fan making.

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