Pacific Island and Asian Trade
Tortoiseshell and Sandalwood
Early nineteenth century America is one of the many cases in history that displays the covetousness of exotic and unusual items that are not indigenous. Tortoiseshell and sandalwood were regarded as beautiful and extraordinary materials acquired during the early part of that century, particularly for the use of fan making. The tortoiseshell sticks were used for its unique beauty and durable qualities as well as its dark color that offsets the colorful and exotic plumage that often accompanied it. Sandalwood is known for its light weight and naturally pleasant smell.
As these materials are not indigenous to America, trade was entirely necessary to please the populous’ demand and to boost the fan market. Despite the natural danger of possible shipwrecks, the Pacific Islands became popular trading ports for these desirable materials. Sandalwood traders went hand-in-hand with whaling of New England seaports, as the breeding areas for Sperm whales drifted from the Antarctic waters to the tropical islands of the Pacific.
Although a short rise in trade followed a few decades after the lull of the 1820’s, the trade between America and the Pacific Islands slowly dwindled over the latter half of the nineteenth century; the whaling industry followed suit shortly afterwards.
Although it seems contradictory to the conventional combination of tortoiseshell and bright plumage, these fans could very likely be mourning fans based on the dark tortoiseshell dressed with black feathers. It is interesting to speculate about their distinctive sizes; perhaps these were specifically made for mother and daughter.
This Chinese fan is composed of tortoiseshell sticks and a black fabric leaf that is decorated with a variety of images. It is interesting to note the image of butterflies is incorporated on the leaf, as butterflies are known for their symbolism of change; based on the black leaf and dark tortoiseshell, transience is the stage of life that may be associated with this particular fan. Another interesting notation is that both the Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) and the Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais urticae) are among the Nymphalidae family of butterflies.
Sandalwood is mainly a product of India and the Pacific Islands. In the Eastern tradition, sandalwood is associated with meditation and mental clarity while its scent is thought to comfort mourners. It is oftentimes intricately perforated, being held together with strands of ribbon. It was also painted, which clearly displays one of its many potentials as intriguing ornamentation.
The distinctive style of intricate perforation and interlacing ribbon is not limited to sandalwood. These ivory and tortoiseshell fans shown here respectively mimic that style.
Viewed as a symbol of royalty and spiritual eloquence, the peacock feather was highly esteemed in the Eastern part of the world, particularly in India. Stemming from Indian origins, peacock feathers were incorporated in the ancient myths of Greece and Rome as well.
This positive manner of thinking was not matched on the other side of the world, however. In America, the peacock feather was negatively regarded as a symbol of bad omen, an attitude that may have origins in the book of Genesis concerning the ever-watchful eye of the demon Lilith and her inclination to harm children.
The tip of the peacock’s iridescent feathers has a distinctive circular marking that is often coupled with the phrase “evil eye,” reinforcing the negative light that has been shed by the western world.
Despite its negative connotations, the peacock feather fan was mimicked using other materials. This wooden fan has sticks that are oval shaped and dressed with a red material painted with flowers.