In early China, fans were used to blow dust off chariot wheels in order to stop it getting in the eyes of drivers. Nowadays they are used in tea ceremonies; once the tea is finished, the host will invite his guests to fan themselves. They will concur, with great gravitas.
Japanese battle fans were for close-combat use, held like table-tennis bats and used with flicks of the wrist. A dagger fan was a Japanese invention that looked a bit like a folded fan but was actually a deadly weapon. For this reason, Japanese fans would often not close fully - to show that they were benign. The Japanese tea fan should not be used to cool one down - it is for the transportation of cakes only.
Egyptian ceremonial fans were often phallic in shape (that is, the middle feather was longer than others). This is because they were used to celebrate Osiris, who, when killed by his brother Typhon, was cut into pieces. These pieces were found by Isis, but she couldn't find his genitals, so they became the most venerated part of him, associated with many special rites.
The language of the fan was a 19th century invention to allow young women to send coded messages across a crowded room. The list of signals was devised and published by Maison Duvelleroy, the most prestigious fan-makers in Europe. Founded in 1827 in France, Duvelleroy is one of the few French fan manufacturers that still exists today. In its heyday the best artists in Paris would design Duvelleroy fans and many were decorated with lavish jewellery.
By the middle of the 19th century flowers were a dominant motif on fans, especially wedding fans. They complemented the Victorian ‘language of flowers’ and it was this that inspired Duvelleroy to publish his fan language. His list was mainly a marketing gimmick and a bit of fun; many people would have been familiar with it, as he gave one away with every fan purchased, but it’s hard to imagine that many women would have flashed flirtatious messages across a crowded ballroom using a code which was known to everyone in the room. The list was as follows:
Carrying in right hand in front of face: Follow me.
Placing it on left ear: I wish to get rid of you.
Drawing across the forehead: You have changed.
Twirling in left hand: We are watched.
Drawing through the hand: I hate you.
Drawing across the cheek: I love you.
Presented shut: Do you love me?
Shut the fully opened fan very slowly: I promise to marry you.
Fans are traditional New Years gifts in Japan. The shape is regarded as an emblem of life.
At dances the fans of the ladies present were put in a hat. The men would pull out a fan to choose their dancing partner.
Fans were invented 3,000 years ago in China. They were brought into Italy from the East in the 16th century. At first they were used only by the wealthy and by royalty. Gradually as trade with the East increased more and more fans came to Europe and by the end of the 17th century a fan was an essential accessory for any lady of standing.
Fans did have practical uses aside from sending flirtatious messages; they were a shield against fires, used to swat away insects and to revive fainting ladies – this was rather common in women who wore corsets. People would often attach little snuff-boxes onto the pivots of their fans. There are also models that are reminiscent of Swiss army knives, with space for a sewing kit, a vinaigrette containing vapours, a comb, a toothpick, a mirror and a thimble.
Putting your thumb to your nose and wiggling your fingers in an insulting manner was called a ‘Queen Anne's Fan’.
The word ‘fan’ comes from the Latin vannus which was a fan-shaped implement used to winnow grain.
A lady became ‘known’ in society by which fan she carried.
Yawning cools your brain, like a fan cools the inside of a computer.
Absence diminishes little passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans a fire.