A hand-held fan is an implement used to induce an airflow for the purpose of cooling or refreshing oneself. Any broad, flat surface waved back-and-forth will create a small airflow and therefore can be considered a rudimentary fan. But generally, purpose-made hand-held fans are shaped like a circle segment made of a thin material (such as paper or feathers) mounted to slats which revolve around a pivot so that it can be closed when not in use.
The movement of a hand-held fan provides cooling by increasing the airflow over the skin which in turn increases the evaporation rate of sweat droplets on the skin. This evaporation has a cooling effect due to the latent heat of evaporation of water.
Fan history stretches back thousands of years. Since antiquity, fans have possessed a dual function – a status symbol and a useful ornament. In the course of their development, fans have been made of a variety of materials and have included decorative artwork. The simplest fans are leaves or flat objects, waved to produce a cooler atmosphere. These rigid or folding hand-held implements have been used for cooling, for air circulation, as a ceremonial device, and as a sartorial accessory throughout the world from ancient times. They are still widely used.
The earliest known fans are called 'screen fans' or 'fixed leaf fans'. These were manipulated by hand to cool the body, to produce a breeze, and to ward off insects. Such early fans usually took the form of palm leaves. Some of the earliest known fans have come from Egyptian tombs. Early Assyria and Egypt employed slaves and servants to manipulate the fan. In Egyptian reliefs, fans were of the rigid type. Tutankhamen's tomb possessed gold fans with ostrich feathers, matching depictions on tomb walls. Long-handled, disk-shaped fans were carried by attendants in ancient times and were associated with regal and religious ceremonies. They had handles or sticks attached to a rigid leaf or to feathers. Plumage of birds was used in fans, such as those of the Egyptians and Native American Indians, that had both practical and ceremonial uses.
In the ancient Americas, the Aztec, Maya, and South American cultures used bird feathers in their fans. Among the Aztec fans were used to depict merchants in illustrations of trades. The use of various feather types had a religious connotation. The Paracas people of South America (modern Peru) have left numerous examples of ancient feather fans among their mummies. In India, the Hindi term for a fan is 'pankha' (a derivative of "a feather" or "a bird's wing"). Pictorial evidence records that the Greeks, the Etruscans, and the Romans used fans as cooling and ceremonial devices. In Greece, linen was stretched over leaf-shaped frames. In Rome, gilded and painted wooden fans were used. Roman ladies throughout the empire used circular fans. Chinese sources link the fan with mythical and historical characters.
In China, screen fans were used throughout society. The earliest known Chinese fans are a pair of woven bamboo side-mounted fans from the 2nd century BC. The Chinese character for "fan" (扇) is etymologically derived from a picture of feathers under a roof. The Chinese fixed fan, pien-mien, means 'to agitate the air'.
Fans were part of the social status for the Chinese people. A particular status and gender would accord a specific type of fan to an individual. The folding fan was invented in Japan in the 8th century and taken to China in the 9th century. The Akomeogi (or Japanese folding fan; 衵扇; Hiōgi) originated in the 6th century. These were fans held by aristocrats of the Heian period when formally dressed. They were made by tying thin stripes of hinoki (or Japanese cypress) together with thread. The number of strips of wood differed according to the person's rank. They are used today by Shinto priests in formal costume and in the formal costume of the Japanese court (they can be seen used by the Emperor and Empress during coronation and marriage) and are brightly painted with long tassels. The Chinese dancing fan was developed in the 7th century. The Chinese form of the hand fan was a row of feathers mounted in the end of a handle.
In China, the folding fan came into fashion during the Ming dynasty between the years of 1368 and 1644, and Hangzhou was a center of folding fan production. The Mai Ogi (or Chinese dancing fan) has ten sticks and a thick paper mount showing the family crest. Chinese painters crafted many fan decoration designs. The slats, of ivory, bone, mica, mother of pearl, sandalwood, or tortoise shell, were carved and covered with paper or fabric. Folding fans have "montures" which are the sticks and guards. The leaves are usually painted by craftsman. Social significance was attached to the fan in the Far East. The management of the fan became a highly regarded feminine art. The function and employment of the fan reached its high point of social significance (fans were even used as a weapon - called the iron fan, or tiě shān in Chinese, tessen in Japanese). Simple Japanese paper fans are sometimes known as "harisen". In Japanese current pop culture, Harisen are featured frequently in animation and graphic novels as weapons.
Printed fan leaves and painted fans are done on a paper ground. The paper was originally hand made and displayed the characteristic watermarks. Machine made paper fans, introduced in the 19th century, are smoother with an even texture.
Folding fans (扇子 Japanese "sensu", Chinese: "shān zi";) continue to be important cultural symbols and popular tourist souvenirs in East Asia. Geisha of all types (but maiko most often) use folding fans in their fan dances as well.
In Europe, during the Middle Ages, the fan was absent. Christian Europe's earliest fan was the flabellum (or ceremonial fan), which dates to the 6th century. These were used during services to drive insects away from the consecrated bread and wine. Their use died out in western Europe during the Middle Ages, but continues in the Eastern Orthodox and Ethiopian Churches. Hand fans were reintroduced to Europe in the 13th century and 14th century. Fans from the Middle East were brought back by Crusaders. In the 15th century, Portuguese traders brought fans to Europe from China and Japan. Fans became generally popular.
In the 1600s the folding fan, introduced from China, became popular in Europe. These fans are particularly well displayed in the portraits of the high-born women of the era. Queen Elizabeth 1st of England can be seen to carry both folding fans decorated with pom poms on their guardsticks as well as the older style rigid fan, usually decorated with feathers and jewels. These rigid style fans often hung from the skirts of ladies, but of the fans of this era it is only the more exotic folding ones which have survived. Those folding fans of the 15th century to found in museums today have either leather leaves with cut out designs forming a lace-like design or a more rigid leaf with inlays of more exotic materials like mica. One of the characteristics of these fans is the rather crude bone or ivory sticks and they way the leather leaves are often slotted onto the sticks rather than glued as with later folding fans. Fans made entirely of decorated sticks without a fan 'leaf' were known as brisé fans. However, despite the relative crude methods of construction folding fans were at this era high status, exotic items on par with elaborate gloves as gifts to royalty.
In the 17th century the rigid fan which was seen in portraits of the previous century had fallen out of favour as folding fans gained dominance in Europe. Fans started to display well painted leaves, often with a religious or classical subject. The reverse side of these early fans also started to display elaborate flower designs. The sticks are often plain ivory or tortoiseshell, sometimes inlaid with gold or silver pique work. The way the sticks sit close to each other, often with little or no space between them is one of the distinguishing characteristics of fans of this era.
In 1685 the Edict of Nantes was revoked in France. This caused large scale immigration from France to the surrounding Protestant countries (such as England) of many fan craftsman. This dispersion in skill is reflected in the growing quality of many fans from these non-French countries after this date.
In the 18th century, fans reached a high degree of artistry and were being made throughout Europe often by specialized craftsmen, either in leaves or sticks. Folded fans of lace, silk, or parchment were decorated and painted by artists. Fans were also imported from China by the East India Companies at this time. Around the middle 1700s, inventors started designing mechanical fans. Wind-up fans (similar to wind-up clocks) were popular in the 1700s. In the 19th century in the West, European fashion caused fan decoration and size to vary.
It has been said that in the courts of England, Spain and elsewhere fans were used in a more or less secret, unspoken code of messages These fan languages were a way to cope with the restricting social etiquette. However, modern research has proved that this was a marketing ploy developed in the 18th century - one that has kept its appeal remarkably over the succeeding centuries. This is now used for marketing by fan makers like Duvelleroy in London who produced a series of advertisements in the 1960s showing "the language of the fan" with models displaying antique fans with this "language".