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Joseph Addison (1672-1719), an English writer and social commentator, described a fan as 'That little modish machine', and where else can one find, all rolled into a single hand-held object, an air cooler, a fashion statement, a fly chaser, a flirtation device, a power-symbol, and a piece of art?

Fans have existed for centuries all over the world, and their uses have ranged from the most practical - shooing away flies or stirring up a refreshing breeeze - to the most fanciful such as fans featuring games, or fans with peepholes. They have also had religious and ceremonial functions.

Kunisada print

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865)
Picture of the calligraphy and painting party held at Mampachiro (Mampachiro-jo shoga-kaiseki no zu)
colour woodcut, 1827
Fitzwilliam Museum P.61-1938

In China and Japan, fans and fan-making have had a long and continuous history, with written documentation dating from at least the early centuries AD. Fans were an important feature of court life, particularly in Japan. They were used equally by men and women, and strict codes of fan etiquette prevailed.

print of lady with a feather fan

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677)
Lady with veil and feather fan
etching, from
The Severall Habits of English Women, 1640
Fitzwilliam Museum 31.I.4

In Europe fans were recorded in the possession of noble and bourgeois women in the fourteenth century, but the European fascination with them didn't take off until the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when traders and explorers ventured to Asia and South America and brought back curious and beautiful examples. Feather fans, made of assorted bird feathers attached to a single handle, quickly caught on as fashion accessories, and courtly status symbols. Royal portraits, such as several of Queen Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) include this type of fan as an indication of wealth and power. Small flag-shaped fans made of fabric, woven straw, or paper were also fashionable, and were used by a wider spectrum of society.

During the sixteenth century Portuguese merchants trading in China and Japan brought back a new type of fan - the wedge-shaped folding fan - which dominated the European market from the mid seventeenth century. Styles of decoration changed over the centuries, but folding fans remained a fashionable accessory until the early twentieth century. In fact folding fans had existed much earlier, but they were D-shaped or round like the 9th century flabellum (liturgical fan) from Tournus abbey, now in the Bargello museum in Florence.

engraving by Abraham Bosse

Abraham Bosse (1602-1676)
The Ball (detail)
etching and engraving, c.1634
Fitzwilliam Museum 30.I.4

By the beginning of the 18th century fans had already become widely popular in England and Europe. Fashionable women wouldn't be seen without them, and Joseph Addison, quipped in 1711: 'Women are armed with Fans as Men with Swords, and sometimes do more Execution with them' (The Spectator, 102, Wednesday, 27 June 1711). By this date established trade and manufacturing networks were in place to meet the demand for fans; in England, for example, the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers, was incorporated in 1709, and still exists today.