Fans: A Link Between Cultures

Exhibition Introduction

Advertising Fans

Tortoiseshell and Sandalwood

Fashion, Sophistication, and Myth

European Influence

Fan Glossary

Language of the Fans

Photograph List

Exhibition Credits

1984.37.2 Detail
Detail of a watercolor on paper
Adolf J. Frederick
Austrian, 1904

Fashion, Sophistication, and Myth

Fashion and Sophistication

Fans have many uses ranging from practical to symbolic. They can keep you cool in hot weather, serve in religious ritual, display sophistication and wealth, or function as an advertising medium. Perhaps the most enduring role of the handheld fan is as the symbol of wealth or royalty, which stretches as far back as the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Babylon and continues even to this day.

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In western culture, fans were commonly associated with the sophistication of the upper classes. Those who aspired to high status could see fans in use in fashion magazines, such as Peterson’s Monthly Magazine here from 1875, which depicts elegant women extravagantly dressed in the height of fashion of that era. Even children’s dolls, paper and porcelain alike, are often shown grasping fans.

The Influence of Japanese Culture

1977.46_detailAlthough the fashionable Parisian women were the ideal of American fashion magazines, Asia was also certainly influential. New Bedford had contacts with Japan before its official opening to the west, through whaling (see our online exhibit Pacific Encounters) and as a result, Japanese art and design ideas may be found in the artifacts of the day, even fans. Illustrations of Japanese Geishas may be considered not only as a link to the cross-cultural exchange of the whaling era, but also to the longing for sophistication reflected in the fashion magazines mentioned above.

Leisure and the Upper Class

Leisure scenes were often painted on fans, reflecting the owner’s tastes and perhaps their chosen or hoped for lifestyle.

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This fan is the epitome of upper class "nonchalance." The presence of gondolas, masquerades masks, mandolins, distinct hairstyles, and the faint depiction of the lion of Saint Mark, the patron of Venice, all confirm the setting as Renaissance Venice (note that one woman is holding a fan). The positions of the figures reflect the “nonchalance” attitude, or sprezzatrua in Italian, taught by such courtiers as Baldassare Castiglione in contemporary Italy; he believed that the actions of a true upper class citizen should be conducted in a graceful and effortless manner.

Courting and Romance

1984.37.2 ThumbnailFans were used to express a secret language (see “Language of the Fans”), mostly used for flirtations and courtship. In fact, the fans themselves would often depict a courting couple, preferably at leisure, as mentioned in "Leisure and the Upper Class."

1977.1.4 ThumbnailFans were an accepted part of the ritual of courtship. This particularly extravagant 19th century valentine addressed to a woman named Eliza Anne White in 1846, depicts a woman dressed in finery holding a folding fan, as does this 1904 painting of a courting couple by Adolf J. Frederick.

Myth and Folklore

1946.19.1 Thumbnail00.180.41 Thumbnail Many fans are ornamented with images that carry some symbolism for the user or owner. This painted courting fan located on the left combines the leisurely romance of the upper class with symbols of that romance; the two turtledoves offered by the man represents love and friendship, and the lamb represents female innocence. The second painted courting fan located on the right depicts a greyhound, representing both fidelity and royalty, to the left of the couple.

1947.34 ThumbnailThe mythological figures of nymphs and fairies are often depicted on the fans. The most common symbol is that of the butterfly, which represents the action of change and the presence of beauty. This particular silk fan incorporates both butterfly-winged cherubs and the love bow of Cupid. Asian influences may also be seen in the presence of the dragonfly and cherry blossoms.

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This paper fan however, incorporates the elements of both folklore and mythology. The front of the fan depicts a scene of children dancing in a circle holding hands. They are singing “Ring Around the Rosie,” a children’s nursery rhyme that dates back to the Black Death of the European Middle Ages. The traditional interpretation of the rhyme, “Ring around the rosie/A pocket full of posies/Ashes, ashes/We all fall down” refers to the disease’s initial pinkish sores that form on the skin and the inevitability of death. William Newell, an American folklorist of the latter half of the 19th century, accounted for a unique version of this rhyme in New Bedford, Massachusetts that dates back to 1790. The version is as follows: “Ring a ring a rosie/A bottle full of posie/All the girls in our town/Ring for little Josie.” The back of this fan reads, “Las Ninfas,” which translates in both Spanish and Portuguese “The Nymphs.” New Bedford's whaling days brought many immigrants from the Azores to the city, where they became an important part of the community. This fan incorporates both the New Bedford history of Portuguese culture as well as the presence of mythology that dates back to colonial times.

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18 Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford, Massachusetts 02740