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Time Pieces History Project Item Two – Fan

First time on the blog or new to the Time Pieces History Project? Find out what it’s all about here, and then come back to this page for today’s item – the fan.

The Fan – Introduction to Item Two

Open paper fan with red wooden handle and decorated with cherry blossom and a birdThe mantlepiece of my teenage bedroom was cluttered with a random and sometimes tasteless assortment of knick-knacks, all of which had personal significance. This fan was one of the items on display, probably a gift from a grandmother or aunt.

I was fascinated by the idea of the beautiful but fragile silk fans brought back as souvenirs by tourists to Asia, ornately decorated with exotic scenes. I’m yet to own one of those, but I do still love them, although I don’t have the poise to use one myself without looking daft!

 The History of The Fan

Wikipedia’s description of a fan, as a ‘flat surface waved to create an airflow, shaped like a sector of a circle and mounted to revolve around a pivot so it can close’ doesn’t really bring to mind the delicate paper and silk hand fans of the past.

The fan dates back to the 4th century BC, where the rigid type was used in ancient Greece. Ceremonial fans were used in 6th century Christian Europe to keep flies away from the bread and wine. It’s interesting to see that fans of one sort or another appear throughout history and across the world, and even Queen Elizabeth I had a couple.

Chinese Fan

The oldest fans from China were made from bamboo in the 2nd century. Carried by both men and women, fans came in a range of ‘classes’, with a different purpose and importance for each.Picture of round fan by Marketa Machova

Both the round, rigid fans and the semi-circular folding fans were intricately painted, with highly-skilled artists decorating them with not only leaves and birds, but buildings, country scenes and even people. It’s believed that Portuguese traders introduced these to the wider world in the 15th century.

Japanese Fan

No doubt inspired by China; hand fans were regularly made from the 6th century onwards. Most often made of paper and decorated with calligraphy or cherry blossom, it was the silk fans which were highly prized. While often used to keep cool, fans were also used in tea ceremonies and dances.

A collection of colourful fansThere is a great deal of symbolism around Japanese fans, not least as a representation of prosperity. The spread as it opens represents the widening of wealth, and the wooden spokes represent paths through life.

Even the colours and pictures on the fans have meaning, with red and white being lucky colours and gold attracting wealth. Cherry blossoms mean luck, a lion strength and a pair of birds a loving couple.

Other Cultural Meanings

In the Dark Ages, fans were used by the Christian church as liturgical objects (of worship). As culture progressed, fans were seen in Western Europe as an indication of wealth and leisure, a symbol of the upper classes and a representation of the ambition of those below them.

In the 17th century, we can see from contemporary paintings that women used both fixed and folded fans, but by the 1800s these had fallen out of fashion. Indeed, by that time, only the poorer women would own a fixed feather fan.

As well as being produced in Europe, the 18th century saw fans imported from the Far East. They were often decorated with biblical or mythical scenes, although more modern pastimes (such as the card game whist) were also shown.


When a Victorian woman had to be discreet about her romantic interests and dalliances, she used the ‘language of the fan’ to send coded messages to her intended. Depending on how the fan was carried or positioned, ladies were able to communicate a range of intentions.

For instance, carrying the fan in the left hand indicated that a woman wanted to get to know a man, and resting the handle on her lips signalled a request to be kissed. Alternatively, if she didn’t want anything to do with the gentleman in question, twirling the fan in the left hand showed she wanted him to go away. And she could even let him down gently, as twirling in the right hand indicated she was in love with someone else.

The Fan Dance

American actress and dancer Faith Bacon with feather fanUsually performed by a woman, The Fan Dance is a nude, erotic performance, using two fans that bear little resemblance to those used to cool off in the heat. It was first made famous by American actress and burlesque star Faith Bacon.

Bacon had an interesting start in life – an article from Medium describes a ‘mysterious’ childhood and travelling the country with her mother, who insisted they pretend to be sisters to find work.

They ended up in Paris, where Bacon was part of the cast along with the Dolly Sisters, whose show involved giant fans made from feathers, and clearly inspired her. Aged 20, she was arrested after appearing nude in a film made by Vincent Minnelli. 

The Fan Dance became even more popular when Sally Rand started performing it in the 1930s. She also introduced the world to the bubble balloon dance. In the 1970s, gay men adapted it for the disco scene, and variations are still performed today.

If you missed the first blog, you can find it here.


The Fan Museum: History of Fans
Medium: Faith Bacon
National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA: Victorian Flirting


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