With the advent of global warming maybe we will see a return in popularity of the traditional fan.
Their use is obvious, but their history is lost in time and original "fans" were probably as simple as a palm leaf or other such item as depicted in Egyptian culture.
The folding fan as we know it today was developed in the Far East around the 10th century AD and since then the format has changed little. The materials used in its construction probably reached a peak of quality around the end of the 18th century.
The main components of a fan are infinite in variety. The handle, or sticks, can be made of ivory, wood, bamboo, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl and, later, celluloid - normally made to resemble tortoiseshell. The leaf, or decorated part, was made or constructed from lace, paper, goat or chicken skin, silk, satin, feathers and lacquer. Shapes also vary from the conventional bird's wings to the cockade and - right through to the rigid asymmetrical fan.
Decoration on the leaf of the fan could range from simple engraving on ivory to delicate painting, lacquering or even the inclusion of jewels or rare feathers. Sometimes the tortoiseshell sticks were inlaid with gold or silver, creating a piquet effect.
Fashion fans were always highly prized and usually individually boxed. For a fan in its original box you have something of added value. These boxes often retained their original price marks - these can be quite amusing when related to today's values.
There is even "the language of the fan". During the late 18th/19th centuries it was considered the fan had a language of its own. The language was transmitted through 33 or more actions and the invention of this code was credited to a Spaniard called Fenella. For instance, carrying the fan in front of the face meant "desirous of acquaintance"; twirling the left hand, "we are watched"; touching tip with fingers, "I wish to speak to you"; placing the closed fan on the left ear, "push off"!
Prices for old fans over the years have remained firm and many fine examples make their way into museums and private collections, thereby depriving the market of very good items. Basic later items are available but beware of damage, possibly irreparable.
The moth creates havoc with the fabric, as does the ubiquitous woodworm, which loves the skin and paper and will attack them voraciously.
Look out for commemorative or advertising fans, these are normally reasonably priced and although not necessarily "antique" could form a very varied and decorative collection.
As I have said, prices can vary enormously. You can pick up a modest 190th/20th-c. fan for £10/£20 although this will probably be something very plain. The decorative fans tend to start at £150/£200 and when you start looking at the Regency or Georgian fans, £500 upward would not be unusual. However, I think as a guideline, buy something that is perfect, even for a lower priced fan, than something which is old and badly damaged which will not necessarily hold its value.
One or two useful addresses, if you would like to know more, are:
Fan Circle International
79a Falcondale Road
Westbury on Trym
Also we have in Norfolk an excellent fan repairer who is himself a member of the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers. He is:
Norfolk PE31 8RB
My thanks to Ian Handy for the illustrations.
Mike Hicks © February 2001