Fans have existed for thousands of years, and have been used in most of the world’s developed societies. At the basic level they are functional devices used for cooling the body, winnowing grain products, or fanning fires, and forms of these are still in use today across the world. Some early civilisations, such as the Aztecs, started to value the fan as an artistic and often valuable object in its own right.
The form of the folding fan, with which we are most familiar, was developed in China and Japan and it was not long before these eastern cultures were exporting fans in large numbers to the West. During the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries fans were an important fashion accessory in Europe, and important artists and jewellers were commissioned to design and make some of the more lavish examples. Alongside these fans, however, were to be found fans with cheap printed leaves that were intended to be ephemeral, and which portrayed subjects as diverse as political cartoons, seating plans of theatres or words and music of popular songs.
Fan design continued seriously into the 1930s when, for various reasons, the use of the fan socially declined dramatically. Many printed fans survive from this period especially those advertising a wide range of products, and these are now very collectable in their own right.
In this section you can explore the evolution of fans since the earliest civilisations through to the present day.