Artifact Corner: Victorian Folding Fan

Hi Everyone and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a delicate ivory fan from the Victorian period. This fan has pierced decoration along the piece as well as some beautifully hand painted flowers. This is folding fan, meaning that it can collapse on itself for ease of carrying. Each piece of ivory is held together by a small pink ribbon, which is quite fragile, thanks to over a hundred years of use. Let’s learn a bit more about the history of hand held fans.

Two of the oldest surviving fans are from the tomb of Tutankhamen and are around 4,000 years old. In ancient Egyptian these fans were called ‘shuwt’, meaning ‘shadow’ or ‘shade’, and feathers would have extended from the metal frame.These were highly prized objects in ancient Egypt. Around the same period in ancient China, they were also using hand fans. These were typically made from woven bamboo and wood. Fan design and construction in China evolved to use a variety of materials including paper, metal, leather, and feathers. Ancient Greeks and Romans also used hand fans, though almost none survive, they are portrayed in mosaics and on pottery from the time period. While the shapes, materials, and decorations for hand fans in the ancient world varied widely, all of the fans were a single piece known as a rigid fan, and not articulated.

The folding fan (Ogi) as opposed to the much older fixed or flat fan (Uchiwa) is popularly thought to have originated in Japan around 670. made of wooden or bamboo strips threaded together and secured by a rivet or pivot. The Chinese dispute this and claim that the hand fan was invented by them around the same period. Whoever invented the folding fan, it came into common use in the 7th Century. Hand fans were absent from the archaeological record in Europe during most of the Middle Ages until they were reintroduced in the 13th and 14th centuries. Fans from the Middle East were brought by Crusaders, and refugees from the Byzantine Empire. In the 18th century, fans reached a high degree of artistry and were being made throughout Europe often by specialized craftsmen. Folded fans of silk, or parchment were decorated and painted by finely trained artists, creating stunning works of practical art. Hand held fans continued to be used throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in warmer climates. Hand held fans started to decrease in popularity with the invention of mechanized fans. When electricity was commonly used in homes in the United States, people didn’t feel the need to carry hand held fans nearly as much.

Our fan is in quite good condition with the exception of the ribbon. This is most commonly the fail point on a fan, as it is the piece that handles the most stress. In the Victorian period, if the ribbon broke, you would simply remove and replace it with a new ribbon, and the fan was good as new. But, because this is an artifact, we will leave the original ribbon in place. All of the painting and decoration on the fan is in fantastic condition. The colors of the flowers are still remarkably vivid, and there is very little flaking of the paint. This is a beautiful little fan, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by.

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
Free download:
License (CC BY 4.0):
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