Fans … no fanning matter

Imagine it: you are in a crowded auditorium or outside listening to a summer concert when you suddenly become hot.  There is no air moving and all you have is bulletin.  What do you do?  If you’re like most people your bulletin becomes a fan to help beat the heat!  Hand held fans work by increasing the airflow over ones skin.  By increasing the airflow one has also increased the rate of evaporation of sweat on skin which leads to a cooling of one’s skin.  Hand held fans are easy to carry around and can be used throughout the day.

Historically, the first fan can be considered to be a palm leaf that a person picked up to cool themselves with.  The fans we will look at in this blog post come from the Victorian Era and were used not only to cool a lady down but also to send non-verbal messages to gentlemen.

High Plains Museum | A040 Fan with Oriental Design

High Plains Museum |
A040
Fan with Oriental Design

By the sixteenth century fans had become prominent accessories.  Women had fans to match most if not all her clothes and fans for every occasion.  It simply wouldn’t do to use your everyday fan at a ball!  During the Victorian Era women would paint their fans, becoming a hobby for many.  Fans during this period were made with a variety of items that included textiles, embroideries, laces and feathers.  The designs on the fan could be anywhere from simple to elaborate.  Some, like the fan on the left, were of an oriental design.  Others, like the fan on the right, were religious.  The High Plains Museum has a small collection of hand held fans from which both of these fans come from.

Fans during the Victorian Era also provided ways for ladies and gentlemen to communicate non

High Plains Museum | MC646 Last Supper

High Plains Museum |
MC646
Last Supper

-verbally.  By placing or moving the fan to different places messages could be sent from a lady to a gentleman.  If a woman placed her fan near her heart it was telling the gentleman that he had won her heart or love but to drop the fan meant she only wanted friendship.  If the fan was touched by one finger she was saying she wished to speak with the gentleman.  To say she was sorry, a lady would move the fan across her eyes.  Opening the fan all the way meant she wanted the gentleman to wait for her, while covering her left ear with an open fan expressed she wished the gentleman to not tell their secret.  If a lady opened and closed the fan a lot of time she was telling the gentleman that he was mean.  During this time gentlemen knew the language of the fan and could speak if fluently.  Today this language is largely lost as ladies do not use fans due to air conditioning or need to convey their feelings through nonverbal messages.   To learn more fan language visit here.

During the Civil War period fans took cooling to a new level.  Ever heard the expression I’m melting?  During this period ladies would apply wax to their faces to conceal lines and blemishes.  During the warmer months or when sitting by a fire the heat would cause the wax to melt.  To stop the melting of their wax ladies would fan themselves or use the fan to block the side of their face from the heat.  This is also were fire place screen came in handy.

High Plains Museum | BM185 Dave's Drug Store

High Plains Museum |
BM185
Adam’s Drug Company

After World War I, the production of fans decreased and were slowly no longer used.  Businesses would make flat fans such as the one seen on the left, for some time afterwards.  This fan is from the Adams Drug Company that used to be in Goodland.  Once a symbol of prominence for the lady which could speak volumes, hand held fans eventually became a thing of the past.  With the invention of air conditioning, fans were needed less.  We still use fans today but they are more likely electric hand held fans or a piece of paper conveniently laying around.

If you would like to make and decorate your own fan visit here.

Look for more posts in this series about our wonderful collection of Sherman County history.

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