A Short History of Decorative Hand Fans

by KathleenDuffy

When temperatures soar, women (and some men) turn to one of the most ancient methods of personal air-conditioning - the fan. It has a long and distinguished history!

As fashion items and objects of desire for their own sake, fans are becoming increasingly rare. Few people seem to use them for decorative purposes either. Yet they are incredibly attractive and each design carries its own history.

In particular, the folding fan is an icon of simple yet effective engineering design which encompasses practicality with beauty.

But in days gone by the fan, in all its guises, meant so much more than merely keeping cool. Its history is a long and intriguing one. The use of decorative, fashionable fans reflects political and social change and, not least, the position of women in society.

And today, with the revival of burlesque dancing, the ostrich fan is making a remarkable come-back.

But where did it all begin?

The Fixed Hand Fan From the Middle East

Ancient Egyptian Fans. Oars and Boats
Ancient Egyptian Fans. Oars and Boats

The history of the fan begins in Egypt, three thousand years ago, where early civilisations used palm fronds as a cooling device and a means of threshing grain. This association with the Staff of Life gave status to the fan and it became a religious artefact. When the tomb of Tutankhamun was opened the remains of two beautiful fans were found amongst the treasures.

These early fans were 'fixed' - a wood or ivory handle was widened into a semi-circle into which feathers were secured. Fixed fans possibly arrived in Europe from the Middle East with Crusaders in the twelfth century.

Plunder of South America by the Conquistadores included feather fans, one of which was presented to Queen Isabella of Spain by Christopher Columbus in 1493.

Elizabeth I is seen in several portraits holding this type of fan.

Elizabeth I with Feather Fan
Elizabeth I with Feather Fan

The Japanese Folding Fan

Japanese Folding Fan
Japanese Folding Fan

For the invention of the folding fan Japan must take the credit, not Spain. 


Bat wit folded wigsThere's a nice story attached to the invention of the folding fan.

According to legend, a Japanese animal-lover rescued a bat and was intrigued by the way its large wings could fold into a compact space yet, on expansion, create a vigorous breeze.  This concept was transferred to the folding fan - so they say!  It does make perfect sense.


In the early sixteenth century Portuguese merchants opened up trade routes to the East and imported folding fans into Italy. Their popularity amongst the nobility spread across Europe.

Dress Fans and the French Revolution

French Fan, 18th Century
French Fan, 18th Century

In the eighteenth century the French saw the fan as a work of art. Painted by craftsmen on vellum or silk and with exquisitely embellished ivory, tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl sticks, French fans were sought-after status symbols and were the most desirable accessory.

The French Revolution saw the decline of the aristocracy, so skilled French artisans found the art of fan-making redundant. These factors contributed to the temporary demise of the elaborately embellished fan.

French Fashion 1796

After the French Revolution fans were smaller, reflecting the linear design of women's dress.


Sometimes even the absence of fans was significant. American women were bereft of French fans when the American Civil War put a stop to imports from France. When the war ended in 1867, the International Exhibition in Paris the following year saw male American visitors accompanied by wives and daughters who packed trunk-loads of fans to take home.

Dress Fans Reflect Social and Technological Change in Britain

From the 17th century onwards fans were imported in huge numbers from China into Europe by the East India company. In the 1870s, with colonial expansion, British fans increased in size. Ostrich feathers from South Africa and even small stuffed birds, were incorporated into fan design.

Further changes in 19th century included:

  • With the Industrial  Revolution came technological change - artificial ivory, machine-made lace  and lithographical printing all contributed to the mass distribution of  the fan.
  • The souvenir fan became  popular from the mid-eighteenth century with travellers on the Grand Tour.
  • With the invention of  photography, fans included photos of the Royal Family, stars of music hall   and opera.
  • Fans were used as promotional give-aways trumpeting the virtues of corsets, hats, snuff, cultural events   or political propaganda.
Modern Souvenir Fan of Mount Fuji
Modern Souvenir Fan of Mount Fuji

More change came in the 20th century

The use of the fan as a fashion accessory had never caught on with working class women in the United Kingdom.  Arguably, they never had their hands free...

Events at the beginning of the twentieth century would change the lives of women and these changes would be reflected in the abandonment of the fan as a fashion accessory amongst middle and upper class women.

A number of factors contributed to its demise:

  • The Suffragette movement and  the outbreak of the First World War made fans redundant as they were perceived as frivolous.
  • Fan collections were sold to raise money for the Red Cross.
  • Women's lives altered  radically. Hands that once indulged in the coquettish language of the fan  now had activities associated with work, driving cars and smoking cigarettes!

Today the fan is a useful, practical accessory for women. Only in Spain and the Middle East is it considered normal for both sexes to use it. It is classless, utilitarian yet still strangely provocative.

To learn more about fans and their history why not visit The Fan Museum in Greenwich, south London?


  • Fans by Helene Alexander (Shire      Publications, 2002)
Updated: 07/18/2013, KathleenDuffy
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Maritravel on 11/01/2015

Have you been to the Fan Museum at Greenwich, London? You should visit it, if not, seeing your interest in fans. They have the most fascinating collection there and as it's in Greenwich village where there are so many intereting places, it's a day out well spent.

Rush'd Lady on 10/29/2015

I carried a white lace fan as part of my wedding bouquet and later made cardstock fans using a template made by tracing around a cedar wooden shingle fan that was my husband's grandmother's. You didn't mention the paper fans we used in campmeeting back in the day before air conditioning in the huge open tabernacle builidngs-- ones with prints of religious art or the church advertisement on the front. I have several of those in my collection.

KathleenDuffy on 02/13/2014

Violet rose - we used to make the folded paper pleated ones at school. The feather fans were popular in the sixties as wall decorations. Had them in my bedsit. :)

KathleenDuffy on 02/13/2014

Cmoneyspinner - you are so right! It's hard to flirt with a cell phone (except by texting, but it's not quite the same) :)

VioletteRose on 02/13/2014

Great selection of beautiful hand fans, I loved to make these from a kind of palm leaves just for fun

cmoneyspinner on 02/13/2014

Fascinating history. Interesting the change in attitude by the 20th century. That won't ever happen with cell phones. :)

KathleenDuffy on 08/22/2013

ologsinquito: Thanks for the thumbs up! Yes, I agree, fans are great things. Such a variety of styles. We are having a lovely summer here in the UK so I've seen quite a few women using fans.

ologsinquito on 08/21/2013

This is a great article. I love those Spanish fans. They look so intriguing and mysterious.

KathleenDuffy on 07/21/2013

Hello Ragtime! so glad you liked the article. I do like fans - even very cheap simple ones look lovely don't they! We used to enjoy making the paper folded ones when we were kids, and it's a great idea to do that! And I like those flat, brightly coloured feather ones, also very cheap - and they look great on the wall! A very versatile item!

Ragtimelil on 07/21/2013

I've always wanted a nice fan. I tend to use folded paper when handy. There are times when you just need a little moving air to keep cool. Great article!

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