NEW YORK – Hand fans began as a strictly utilitarian item, to keep its owner, usually ladies, cool on a hot day. Picture Cleopatra reclining on a sofa while a servant fanned her with a large fan. Somewhere along the way, fans got smaller so they could travel in a bag and became quite decorative. Many types of hand fans are collectible today, including both folding fans as well as fixed fans that don’t fold.
The history of fans is rich, going back some 3,000 years with fixed fans being among the earliest of type, according to commentary on the website of The Fan Museum in Greenwich, London. “Few art forms combine functional, ceremonial and decorative uses as elegantly as the fan. The first European folding fans were inspired by and copied from prototypes brought in to Europe by merchant traders and the religious orders who had set up colonies along the coasts of China and even Japan. These early fans were reserved for royalty and the nobility and, as expensive toys, were regarded as a status symbol.”
Some collectors are eclectic, collecting a variety of fan styles but many specialize in one type, such as those advertising a product or made of bone or lace or featuring a certain decoration theme.
“People sometimes want to collect fans from different countries or that are defined by their time period,” says Abbey Block Cash, president of the Fan Association of North America. “Fans are also desirable based on their materials; the sticks may be constructed of lacquer, carved ivory, resin, tortoise, bone, wood, silver, gold, metal, or mother of pearl. The fan leaf may be of silk, cotton, satin, lace, decoupe or feathers.
“The subject matter of desirable fans will also vary from love scenes to animals, landscapes, occupations, and activities engaged in by individuals, including intimate relationships,” she said. “Fan designs may be hand-colored, printed, lithographed or painted – and they may be adorned with embellishments such as sequins, pique work, weavings or precious or semiprecious stones.”
Mary Cooper, a longtime dealer in antique costume/textiles and publicity officer for the Fan Circle International, began selling vintage dresses while still a student in England about 40 years ago. Her passion for fans began when searching for an antique lace veil to wear for her wedding and finding a lacy fan.
Cooper said fans ultimately became fashion accessories, able to be folded up and hung from a lady’s belt or carried in a handbag. “You want something that’s practical, is pretty and fits in a bag but has the sort of amazement factor.”
She has traded in and collected many lace fans and is personally drawn to Art Deco and Art Nouveau fans, around the same time (early 1900s) that women smoking cigarettes was no longer taboo, bringing about the demise of fans. Holding a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, women stopped carrying fans as they didn’t have a spare hand to hold it, she explained.
Detailing the history of fans, she said, “If you can imagine trade starting from Asia into Europe, the import agencies brought into Italy and into Marseilles in the south of France. The Italian artists used to paint a leaf, which is what we what we call the paper that sits on top [of the fan].” Fan leafs are often made of paper today but in those days it was lambskin or goatskin, made thin, she explained. “That’s one of the ways we can tell the age of a fan as in what that bit on the top is made of,” she said.
By the 18th century, folding hand fans were made throughout Europe, into England and later in America; crafted of such elegant materials as tortoiseshell, ivory, bone and lace. The decoration on their leaves was ornate and meant to spark conversations among the fashionable ladies carrying them as well as conveying status.
Among the most famous of Europe’s fan makers were Felix Alexandre (b. 1823), who made fans for European royalty, Lachelin and Kees, and last but not least the House of Duvelleroy, founded in 1827 to make fans fashionable again. Interestingly, in 2010 two women pooled their savings to buy the rights to trade as Duvelleroy and are again making fans.
Fans from all antique periods are popular but perhaps none more so than circa 1890s-1920s fans “where you have Art Nouveau styling, which was just beautiful design, color and shaping to the fan itself and good artists painting them,” Cooper said, adding that fans from that brief period are few, which pushes up the price. Faberge fans are also rare and highly collectible.
“You either want to buy a fan made in small numbers or you want to buy a fan with what we call provenance,” she said. “As a collector, I know I can’t collect one belonging to Queen Elizabeth II because she keeps them, but I can collect from someone who was in high society when fans were popular. We are always looking for fans that belong to somebody, it’s important if we can find them but it is quite a challenge, so you have to content yourself with just high-quality ones.” Conversely, cheaply mass-produced fans were not expected to last, so surviving examples can be rare and desirable.