A Brief History of Hand Fans

Rick Cundiff - Jun 21, 2019

Hand fans date back thousands of years. Something as simple as a palm frond could be used as a fan in ancient times to keep cool. Crafted with more decoration and ornamentation, fans became ornate objects of decoration in pre-modern times.

The most common hand fan style, the folding fan, was created in the Far East. The fan migrated to Europe, where it quickly became a status symbol among the aristocracy.

By the Victorian era, the folding hand fan had become a means of communication by which a lady could effectively express her thoughts. A coded "language" of fan movements and gestures could convey meaning discreetly but quite clearly to members of the opposite sex. Small gestures could lead to major consequences.

Common fan gestures included resting a fan on the right cheek to indicate "yes," or the left cheek for "no." Drawing a fan across the forehead warned "we are being watched." Snapping a fan closed warned "I am jealous," while placing the fan handle to the lips meant "kiss me."

Many fans also bore messages. Some carried conversation starters, rules for games, song lyrics and other matters geared toward preventing awkward silences at tea parties. Folding fans even carried advertising in the early part of the 20th century.

The classic folding fans are still popular today, and many people even collect them. Modern folding fans are generally fashion accessories, no longer used to carry promotional, commemorative or advertising messages.

That's where the flat hand fan comes in. This style of hand fan also is not new, dating back to the early part of the 20th century at least. Made of cardstock and a simple wooden handle, the contemporary hand fan works just as well today as it did then. The slightest wrist motion can generate a cooling breeze at outdoor functions.

Religious hand fans have long been popular in many churches, particularly in the South. In the era before widespread air conditioning, church hand fans were a necessity during summer services. Today, they remain the perfect way to keep cool at church picnics, tent revivals and other outdoor activities. These fans often feature a printed scene of faith on one side and the name of a local business on the other. Many businesses choose to donate hand fans to churches in return for the advertisement on the reverse side.

Fans also are very popular as wedding favors. The large area of the fan allows plenty of room for a picture of the happy couple, a copy of their wedding announcement, or a favorite poem, song lyric or Bible verse. They make an excellent keepsake to remind family and friends of the couple's special day