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

00.131.57 detail
00.131.57 Print Detail
Les Mode Parisiennes in Peterson's Monthly
August 1875
Entitled "The Evening Party"
Artist/Maker: Illman Brothers

Exhibition Introduction

From fly swatter to a symbol of royalty, the fan has witnessed dramatic changes in its historical timeline. Its birth may be wrapped in obscurity, but one can guess the utilitarian origins inspired by experiencing a cool breeze on a hot summer day or witnessing the usefulness of an ox swatting a fly with its tail. However the fan was conceived, it is safe to say that its usefulness has not wavered throughout the centuries.

The invention of the fan is widely credited to the countries of the Far East, particularly China and Japan. Although fans were given practical roles, they were often used in religious ceremonial instances in cultures around the world. The ancient Greeks are credited with first painting fans with such symbolic and allegorical inscriptions, a practice that has persisted throughout the centuries and expanded across the continents. The establishment of trade mingled such diverse craftsmanship as the painted fans of the West and the feathered fans of the East, giving birth to the wonderfully crafted styles that were exported to America during its early centuries.

Materials, colors, and the design of fans often symbolized certain roles in society: mourning, wedding, mystery, and opera fans are just a few of the common types. As its uses became more involved, the fan became more intricate in design and a language developed among the aristocratic and genteel branch of society. Women learned to maneuver their fans to convey secret messages to suitors; the seemingly innocent gesture of slowly shutting an open fan translated to the knowledgeable gentleman as a promise to marry him!

Although the romantic language of the fan has all but vanished from the modern day, its usefulness as a ceremonial piece and cooling device has remained, making it an object of curiosity and charm.

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