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Everything You Need to Know About Hand-Held Fans

Bronwen and her family have enjoyed collecting many things, including fans, clocks, books and shells.

An elegant, lace-trimmed fan.

An elegant, lace-trimmed fan.

The Changing Use of the Fan

Fashion and the use of hand-held fans have changed over the centuries. At first, the fan was a simple tool for coaxing a fire into life, keeping away insects and flies, or cooling the face in hot weather. Then more elaborate fans were made, and they became things of beauty, fashion accessories for the elite. In Victorian times in Europe, the Language of the Fan developed.

The need for a fan (and therefore its design) has changed over the centuries. Fans made of feathers were used over three thousand years ago. In different cultures, they have been used to add pomp and ceremonial significance, and in the middle ages, they gave grace and charm to court dancers. They have been used by both men and women.

  • China: The early fans were paddle fans. Silk and satin became more available in the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D), with wood and ivory appearing around 990 B.C. and plainer fans began to be used by the common people. In some areas, palm fans were made in the Jin Dynasty (264–420 A.D.). Silk and satin fans continued through the Tang Dynasty (618–907 A.D.) and they became the fashion among scholars and artists when they would write a poem or paint a picture on the fan.
  • Europe: In the middle ages, fans were used in the Christian liturgy and continued to be used in the Roman Catholic Church until Vatican II. There are religious pictures of holy men holding fans. Sometimes religious pictures were painted on the fans, or lists of saints or holy days were written on them.
  • Egypt: Fans were used in ancient Egypt. Some were quite large, as can be seen from ancient frescoes. Fans were used in ancient Greece in the fourth century B.C. and probably before that.
  • Japan: Fans were used by the military to send signals on the battlefield, but were mainly used at court. The Japanese invented the folding fan, and it was introduced into China about a thousand years ago. They were made with fine paper and bamboo.
  • Spain: Fans were, and still are used, especially in Flamenco dancing. They are often trimmed with lace.

Types of Fans

The Folding Fan: The folding fan was introduced to China from Japan around 1,000 A.D. In the late sixteenth century they were introduced to the West by Portuguese travelers.

Parts of a Folding Fan

The parts of the fan!

The parts of the fan!

  • The ribs: The ribs are also known as sticks or slats. Ribs had been made of ivory, bone, camphor wood, sandalwood, tortoise-shell, silver, and gold. They are sometimes pierced with intricate designs, making up the whole of the folding fan.
  • The sticks: The two end ribs are usually known as sticks; they are wider and are often decorated with patterns, pierced, or painted with gold.
  • The head: The screw or swivel that holds all the ribs together is known as the head. This is often threaded with ribbon and decorated with beads, even pearls.
  • The cover: The cover on folding fans is made of a variety of materials, and this is sometimes double so that the decoration can be on both sides of the fan.

Materials Used in Fan Making

  • The cover: A wide range of materials have been used to cover the fan, including paper, hand-made paper, silk, and other fabrics.
  • The ribs: These have been made of a variety of materials, too. They include ivory, bone, mother of pearl, sandalwood, and tortoiseshell.
  • The decoration: Decorations vary, often according to the country and culture. Chinese fans were often hand-painted; Spanish fans had the edges trimmed with lace, while wooden fans were often pierced with intricate patterns along the ribs.
  • The tassel: Tassels were often added, and these were especially long on important occasions, such as weddings.

The Chinese fan used in dancing was usually made of thick paper that had the family crest imprinted or painted on it, and the fan had ten ribs. Fans used in other Asian fan dances are similar.

In Papua New Guinea and other places where palm trees and long grasses are abundant, fans have been made using those materials. The strands have often been dyed and then woven together in intricate patterns. Some have been decorated with shells and feathers.

My grandmother's silk victorian fan, embroidered in silk.

My grandmother's silk victorian fan, embroidered in silk.

The Language of the Fan

In Victorian times the fan became a necessary fashion accessory, and the language of the fan developed. It was ideal for communicating as the Japanese military had found centuries before.

There were many meaningful movements of the fan and coupled with the young lady's use of her eyes, a great number of clandestine meetings were arranged right in front of the chaperone, without her knowledge.

Ship-board oriental menu printed on a paddle fan.

Ship-board oriental menu printed on a paddle fan.

Uses for Fans

Fans were often used for storing information. It may be a poem, a list of holy days, or (like an autograph book) for people's signatures, especially at dances where young people met.

They have also been utilized as menu cards, as in one of the fans above, and as a souvenir, as in the fan from Bali below.

Fans are still useful today. A folding fan is a convenient addition to a lady's handbag in case of warm weather. Fans can be an elegant addition to a wedding, perhaps matching the coordinated colors of the wedding and with a message printed on them as a favor for guests. A lovely idea and a reminder of a more leisurely and graceful age.

A wooden fan that tells where it came from: Bali, Indonesia.

A wooden fan that tells where it came from: Bali, Indonesia.

A poem on a Chinese fan.

A poem on a Chinese fan.

© 2013 Bronwen Scott-Branagan


Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on May 28, 2018:

Mary Norton: Thank you for your comment. Yes, they were really part of our wardrobe, even now, I usually have one with me, although it's not at all necessary when winter is about to descend!

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 27, 2018:

I love fans. When I was growing up, they were part of women's wardrobe and they carry them all the time as it can really be hot.My mother and my aunts had an assorted collection of fans and we loved playing with them.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on April 11, 2013:

AudreyHowitt: Thank you, so do I! As well as being useful today, they are reminiscent of another, more graceful and leisurely age.

Audrey Howitt from California on April 10, 2013:

Beautiful hub Blossom! I happen to love fans!

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on March 25, 2013:

teachesjoe52: Good morning! Yes, it will be hot up your way, especially at this time of the year. Fans are a very useful tool for many occasions. May God bless you, too.

teacherjoe52 on March 24, 2013:

Good morning Blossom.

Very interesting. I did not know the Japanese invented the folding fan. It will be fun to share that with the Chinese.

They have incredible fans for sale everywhere here when it is hot. I use them all the time.

God bless you.

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on March 22, 2013:

Frank Atanacio: What a lovely comment. Thank you.

Anglnwu: They are interesting. It's lovely to have stories behind the things that clutter my house. Thank you for your vote.

anglnwu on March 21, 2013:

What a collection of interesting fans you have. Thanks for sharing the history of fans and how they're used in different cultures. Rated up.

Frank Atanacio from Shelton on March 20, 2013:

Blossom what a good share and I wouldn't have expected anything less :)

Bronwen Scott-Branagan (author) from Victoria, Australia on March 19, 2013:

Ericdierker: Interesting memories. Thank you for sharing them.

Mhatter99: You won't be needing them at the moment, I imagine, but summer will come and a fan could be useful.

janshares: Thank you. Tai chi fan sounds interesting. Glad you enjoyed it.

LaThing: Thank you for your enthusiasm and vote. The photos take a while to take and down load so I'm glad that you enjoyed them.

Eiddwen: Thank you, dear Eddy. Hope the weather over there is improving and that you have a beautiful spring.

Eiddwen from Wales on March 18, 2013:

Another wonderful hub of how to create such beautiful fans. Thank you for sharing.


LaThing from From a World Within, USA on March 18, 2013:

Great hub! Nice to find out more about the history of the fans, and those are beautiful pictures. Wonderful job, Blossom! Voting up and everything :)

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on March 18, 2013:

Wow! What a beautiful, original hub. I practice tai chi and my favorite form I presented in tournament was tai chi fan. Thank you for the visuals. Up, beautiful, and interesting.

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on March 17, 2013:

I have a refreshed appreciation of fans. Thank you. See FB

Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on March 17, 2013:

I once defended a murderous woman on a charge of murder. It was in a back water desert town. We had those big old slow moving fans from the ceiling and the Jurors and all were issued little hand fans. We were admonished that we could remove coats in the courtroom.

Two decades later I was marrying my bride in Southeast Asia, the same looking fans appeared.

I was asked to preach a special sermon in a southern Baptist church and as I began to wail and bring in some brimstone -- the fans came out.

Thank you for bringing back the memories.