Published: June 15, 2009
Development of the fan
Fixed-leaf fan on old Japanese Satsuma
Madame Chrysantheme with fixed-leaf fan, Victorian or Edwardian
Folding fan, engraved and tinted ivory
Edwardian feather fan, brass
Folding fan, modern carved shell
Nobody truly knows when the first fans were used because, as with buttons, their beginning is lost in time. It is probably safe to assume that fans are virtually as old as humankind. It is, after all, almost instinctive to pick up something on a hot summer day and wave it in front of your face to create a cooling breeze.
One of the earliest fans is the long-handled pole fan developed in Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs. From archeologists' discoveries in tombs, we know that such fans were used in Egypt as early as 5,000 years ago by people of very high rank.
While the Chinese also had pole fans and even large screen fans to cool rooms, they are better known for the development of the handheld fan. References to fans can be found in 4,000-year-old Chinese literature. Legend has it that the first small personal fan came about when a girl at the Feast of Lanterns removed her festival mask and fanned herself with it on a stifling hot day. Upon seeing this, other women were quick to follow her example. There is probably very little truth in this legend -- it is unlikely that masks predate fans -- but it is a charming story.
Early fans had a fixed or rigid leaf and did not fold. Examples are found in images on several Victorian and Edwardian buttons depicting Madame Chrysantheme. When most of us think of fans today, however, we think of the small folding fan. An unknown Japanese artist is credited with its development during the reign of Jen-Ji (AD 668-672.) An unlucky bat flew into the artist's room and in its panic struck a lamp, burning its wings so badly that it crashed to the floor. According to the story, the artist studied the structure of the bat's wings and came up with the idea of the folding fan. The vast majority of fans found on picture buttons are of folding fans.
The folding fan was slow to gain acceptance in China, however. For many years, it was mainly used by courtesans and came to be considered the badge of the courtesan. Allegedly, seaport prostitutes picked up its use from Japanese sailors. The device was so useful and convenient, however, that it eventually lost its stigma and became acceptable for respectable ladies.
Portuguese traders brought the folding fan from China to Europe in the middle of the 16th century. It didn't take long before the use of fans spread across the continent, and they were being made in virtually every country in Europe, plus imported from China. The use of fans was largely confined to court circles at this time, but both gentlemen and ladies carried fans, a custom that would endure for the next two centuries.
As with buttons, the 18th century was the golden age of the European fan, yielding some of the most sumptuous, costly, and downright extravagant fans ever produced. Men's fans from the 18th century can be distinguished from ladies' fans by the presence of an insect in the decoration.
Queen Victoria discouraged the use of fans among men during the 19th century, and as men's fashions became more subdued, the fan all but disappeared from their hands. By World War I, the invention of electric fans and the changing roles of women led to its demise among women. As the formal ball gave way to the cocktail party, the fan was left at home. It is rather difficult to carry a purse, a drink, a cigarette, and a fan. However, we still have the joy of seeing fans, in all their fluttery glory, on buttons.
Language of the fan
Victorian brass fop: "You are too willing."
Victorian horn with metal fop: "Follow me."
Victorian lithographed celluloid: "Come and talk to me."
Merveilleuse on Victorian painted and lustered caramel glass
One evening as I was admiring some lovely Victorian-era buttons featuring images of people with fans, I paused to wonder if there could be hidden messages in the buttons. There was indeed a secret and silent language by which lovers could communicate via the fan during the Victorian era. The hand in which the fan was held, the angle at which it was held, its open or closed status, the speed at which it was waved, where it was pointed -- all these elements carried certain meanings to those privy to this arcane knowledge.
It is natural for people to gesture, and even flirt, when handed a fan. Many people communicate expressively with their hands, and it makes sense that women would have used their fans as extensions of their hands to indicate interest, or perhaps disinterest, to the opposite sex. Whether the intended target was adept at reading the message . . . well, I suppose that depended on the person.
By the Victorian era, people would have been familiar with the language of the fan from parlor games and magazine articles of the period. The way a lady held a fan as depicted on a button could have had symbolic meaning to Victorian-era button buyers. Some buyers no doubt enjoyed the message they were surreptitiously broadcasting via the tiny fans on the buttons they wore.
Take, for example, the wonderful fop button that shows a young couple of circa-1800 France. These French fops, as the English called them, wore outrageously exaggerated clothing styles, leading to their somewhat derisive identification as Incroyable (incredible) and Merveilleuse (marvelous). As the Incroyable on a button gallantly presents a flower, Merveilleuse appears to signal "you are too willing" by carrying her fan in her right hand.
Perhaps a young lady briskly walking as she carries an open fan in her right hand and in front of her is signaling, "Follow me." Or, because the fan is wide open, she might be telling her young man, "Wait for me." This silent communication could be a bit ambiguous. What if the wrong person read your message, or the right person misinterpreted it?
Here is a baker's dozen of some of the other meanings found in fan buttons:
• An open fan in the left hand: "Come and talk to me."
• Clasped hands under an open fan: "Forgive me, I pray you."
• A closed fan: "I wish to speak to you."
• An open fan covering a left ear: "Do not betray our secret."
• An open fan fluttering with the left hand: "Don't flirt with that woman."
• A pensive gaze at a closed fan: "Why do you misunderstand me?"
• A half-open fan over the face: "We are being watched."
• A closed fan presented to another: "Do you love me?"
• A closed fan resting on the right cheek: "Yes."
• A closed fan resting on the left cheek: "No."
• A fan handle to the lips: "Kiss me."
• An open fan covering the eyes: "I love you."
• A closed fan in the left hand: "I am desirous of your acquaintance."
|Pat Fields began collecting buttons in earnest during a period of recuperation from cancer, never realizing how all-consuming these little treasures would become. She is co-author with her husband, David, of two button books, including From Nut to Button: A Closer Look at Vegetable Ivory. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Web site is iwantbuttons.com.|
Armstrong, Nancy: Fans; London, 1984.
Armstrong, Nancy: The Book of Fans; New Malden, 1979.
Mackay, James. Fans: Ornaments of Language and Fashion; London, 2000.
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