Eighteenth Century Fans: How They Were Used

Archaeological ruins and ancient texts indicate that fans have long been popular and could be found in ancient cultures. However, once fans were introduced to Europe, they quickly became popular and it was also not long before France became the center for fan design and production. By the eighteenth century, fans in France had reached a high degree of artistry and craftsmanship.

Fans were meticulously created because guild regulations began to determine what craftsmen could and couldn’t do. This meant that eighteenth century jobs related to fans were specialized: There were artists responsible to oversee the fan’s quality, design, and form; carvers or designers were employed to create the leaves or sticks; and certain workers were tasked with assembling all the pieces to create the perfect fan.

Points of a fan. Author’s collection.

In the eighteenth century, fans came in two forms: rigid or folding fans. Rigid fans, also called screen fans, were never as popular as folding fans because they were considered cumbersome as they could not collapse. They also lacked portability and therefore tended to be used inside a person’s home.

Folding fans, on the other hand, could easily collapse and because they were compact, they could also be carried unobtrusively in the hand or a pocket. There were a variety of folding fans, with the main ones being the brisé, cockade, or pleated fans as described:

  • Brisé fan – This fan contains a set of sticks that are secured at the top with a cord or ribbon to hold the sticks together and the sticks are attached with a pivot pin or rivet just like the pleated fan.
  • Cockade fan – This fan opens into a complete circle around the pivot or rivet and can be either pleated or brisé in style. However, these fans were often so flamboyant, they were considered impractical.
  • Pleated fan – This fan consists of a mount and a set of sticks connected by a pivot pin or rivet at a head that is either shaped or rounded, which then allows the fan to open. The guards are also wider than on other fans and often more highly decorated.

The next step was to decorate the leaf. Accents included on the leaf were generally accomplished with silver or gold paint. Most eighteenth-century fans were rendered in oil or opaque watercolor paint. Pictures were also designed to fit the shape or the curve of the leaf. Most fans also contained some sort of vignette that included pastoral or landscape motifs and classical or romanticized versions of life. Mythological subjects began to appear on fans after the Grand Tour became popular and Italian fan leaves could be purchased and later mounted in the traveler’s homeland to reduce import duties. There were also fans with religious vignettes, although tales of the Old Testament were the most common scenes.

Pastoral scene in detail. IMG-1396 © C.L. Weber.

The sticks and ribs passed behind a single leaf or between double leaves and the guards. These were generally created from precious materials like ivory, mother-of-pearl, or tortoiseshell and sometimes combined to create a more luxurious fan. Precious materials also required special handling as they had to be cut, carved, filed, shaped, and notched to fit the fan precisely. These pieces were then secured together with a pin, pivot, or rivet at the point where the fan was held called the head.

Up to early 1700s, fans were primarily available only to the upper classes because they were costly to produce and contained precious materials. However, around 1720, fans leaves began to be printed, which meant they were produced en masse. In addition, fan makers began to mount the printed leaves on wood, which made fans less expensive and more readily available to a much wider market.

Once printed fans became popular the pictures on them tended to be related to current happenings such as monarchical, social, or political events and the fan designs shrank so that there was one central scene with two small vignettes on either side. These fans were also intended to be relevant only for a short period of time and it was thought that the owner would dispose of the fan when the event was no longer fashionable. Thus, this was another reason for printed fans being created from cheap materials.

One fan that depicted a current event was created during the time of Marie Antoinette and involved a memorable hunt that she attended on 16 October 1773, sometimes called the “Incident of Achères.” During the hunt a peasant was seriously wounded, and Marie Antoinette came to his aid. The incident generated much good press for the dauphine and she was depicted in a vignette based on a drawing created by the French draughtsman, illustrator, and engraver Jean-Michel Moureau.

An ivory and mother of pearl fan, French, circa 1773, showing Marie Antoinette, titled “Acte de bienfaisance de Marie-Antoinette,” after a drawing by Jean-Michel Moreau. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Many eighteenth-century fans also depicted political events. For instance, there were several fans that showed the storming of the Bastille. One depicted the battlements and a soldier dying, another showed soldiers at its gates, and a third displayed conquerors as they crossed the drawbridge into the Bastille. Once the Bastille was dismantled, it was not forgotten because fans functioned as souvenirs and were “sold for a few sous, and fluttered by the cheek of some light-hearted grisette. ‘Tiens!’ she exclaims, ‘La prise de La Bastille! C’est belle, n’est-ce pas?’”[1]

Perhaps, the most popular person of the 1700s who appeared on several fans was Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, also known as Philippe Égalité. He was Louis XVI’s cousin and brother-in-law to the Princesse de Lamballe. The Duke is known for having cast his vote condemning the king to the guillotine. One fan produced about the Duke told a story about him taking a walk and arriving at a peasant’s house, just as the wife gave birth. The parents had no idea who Philippe was when he proposed he be appointed the godfather, so, one can only guess how surprised they were when he signed the birth register revealing his royal identity.

Another fan showed the launching of a balloon, something that was groundbreaking in the late eighteenth century and greatly appealed to the French people. It is painted onto a silk leaf with ivory carved sticks and the center panel shows the balloon scene. It honors Professor Jacques Charles and two engineering brothers — Anne-Jean Robert and Nicolas-Louis Robert — known collectively as Les Frères Robert (Robert brothers), who invented the lightweight, airtight gas bag.

Eighteenth century fans - 1783 baloon launch

Fan showing 1783 balloon launch. Courtesy of Science Museum Group.

Which balloon launch the fan depicts is unclear. The first free ascent of an unmanned hydrogen-filled balloon happened on 27th August, 1783. That launch was followed in September by a hot air balloon that carried no humans, but did carry a duck, sheep, and rooster. Then there was the launch of the first human-manned untethered flight on 15 October 1783 manned by the scientist Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier.

Fans were often given as gifts to mark special occasions or events. For instance, if a woman became betrothed or married, she might receive a fan in celebration. Fans with wedding themes were often given to brides-to-be by their future husbands or brides gave them to their attendants. In addition, Hymen, the god of marriage, often appeared on eighteenth century wedding fans.

Fans also celebrated births. For instance, there were plenty of fans created related to the children of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette with one fan honoring the new dauphin. It included verses titled, “Chanson sur la Naissance du Dauphin. Air, de la Pantoufle.”

Death was another subject that could be easily observed on fans. In fact, there were special fans designed for mourning. These fans matched the different outfits worn by women to accommodate the varying degrees of mourning in the eighteenth century. However, mourning fans were not always serious as indicated by one from 1751 that included a rather humorous look at death:

“Here lies Fred, who was alive and is dead; Had it been his father, I had much rather; Had it been his brother, still better than another; Had it been his sister, no one would have missed her; Had it been the whole generation, Still better for the nation; But since ‘tis only Fred, who was alive and is dead, There’s no more to be said.”[2]

Eighteenth century fans - mourning fan

Mourning fan 1760–1770. Courtesy of Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco.

Fans were also used for flirting and there have been comments about fans being used for flirting and courtship in the 1700s. One mention was printed in the Spectator on 27 June 1711, when Joseph Addison mockingly satirized them:

“Women are armed with Fans as Men with Swords, and sometimes do more Execution with them. To the end therefore that Ladies may be entire Mistresses of the Weapon which they bear, I have erected an Academy for the training up of young Women in the Exercise of the Fan, according to the most fashionable Airs and Motions that are now practis’d at Court. The Ladies who carry Fans under me are drawn up twice a-day in my great hall, where they are instructed in the Use of their Arms, and exercised by the following Words of Command,

  • Handle your Fans,
  • Unfurl your Fans,
  • Discharge your Fans,
  • Ground your Fans,
  • Recover your Fans,
  • Flutter your Fans.”[3]

Another hint about how eighteenth century fans might have been used was printed in 1764 in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette:

  • For various Uses serves the Fan,
  • As thus – a decent Blind,
  • Between the Sticks to peep at Man,
  • Not yet betray your Mind.
  • Each Action has a Meaning plain,
  • Resentment’s in the Snap,
  • A Flirt expresses strong Disdain,
  • Consent a gentle Tap.
  • All Passions will the Fan disclose,
  • All Modes of Female Art,
  • And to Advantage sweetly shews
  • The Hand, if not the Heart.
  • ‘Tis Folly’s Scepter, first design’d
  • By Love’s capricious Boy,
  • Who knows how lightly all Mankind
  • Are govern’d by a Toy.[4]

Although there are indications that eighteenth century women used fans for flirting and communicating their feelings, fans were usually considered utilitarian at the time. Women used them to regulate air temperature, which Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 noted when he wrote about the fan’s ability to cool the air. Thomas Sheridan also wrote about the utilitarian aspects of the fan in A Complete Dictionary of the English Language that was published in 1789. He defined the fan by stating:

“An instrument used by ladies to move the air and cool themselves; anything spread out like a woman’s fan; the instrument by which chaff is blown away; anything by which the air is moved, an instrument to raise the fire.”[5]

Another mention of the fan’s ability to cool the air also comes from a statement made in the eighteenth century:

“We likewise use Hand Fans for Coolness, and the making a Wind. These impel the Air but gently.”[6]

Besides regulating the air temperature, some historians now suggest that one of the main use of fans in the eighteenth century was to protect a woman’s face from the heat of a fire so that she would not develop heat caused ‘coup rose’ or ruddy cheeks. That was because a creamy white complexion was considered more beautiful than a ruddy one. In addition, fans helped to protect a woman’s makeup from being spoiled as most women wore wax-based cosmetics at the time.

Many eighteenth century fans also appear to have had dual purposes. For instance, even if they could protect a woman’s skin, music and songs were sometimes printed on them, as were theatre programs. In 1790 E. Ludlow, a fan manufacturer, retailer, and wholesaler, touted what he called the “Country Dance Fan.” Printed on it was information for dances in Bath that contained eighteen of the newest and favorite country dances, along with the music. Another example of a fan serving a dual purpose was the topographical fans that appeared in England around 1740, as well as a fan published in 1794 that was called a Sunday fan because it contained a printed religious history of Martin Luther, archbishops of Canterbury, and Protestant bishops.

eighteenth century fans - the Sunday fan

The Sunday Fan. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum.

Fans also made fashion statements. Nearly every woman who owned one accessorized it to match her wardrobe. When her gown changed, so did her fan. Demonstrative of this is that during the late 1700s and early 1800s, women carried smaller fans because there was less fanning needed with lightweight dress and smaller fans better matched the gauziness, sheerness, and slim silhouette of the neoclassical Empire gowns that were all the rage. A big fan would have looked incompatible with such minimalist dresses.

Because of fashions, fans also tended to change in size throughout the eighteenth century. For instance, the Duc de Richelieu wrote in 1729:

“Small fans have quite gone out, and the newest are bigger than ever. Ladies are now never without them summer or winter.”[7]

A year later in October, the Mercure de France of October stated:

“Many fans are of a very considerable price and excessively large, so that some little folks are not quite twice the height of their fans, a circumstance which ought to fill with a due sense of respect the light and playful cavaliers.”[8]

Eighteenth century fans were also often viewed as a vital necessity to indicate good breeding by those who carried them and this idea is demonstrated by what one twenty-first historian wrote:

“The way a lady handled her fan was considered equally as important as owning the elegant accessory itself. In the 18th century an elegance and grace of movement was prized among the upper classes and associated with nobility and good character. Many writers refer to the graceful manner in which a lady unfurled her fan, fluttered it delicately or coquettishly peeked from behind it.”[9]

Fans remained popular into the nineteenth century, and Napoleon Bonaparte was one of the people who bridged the gap between the eighteenth and nineteenth century because he was honored on all sorts of fans both in the 1700 and 1800s. For instance, he was shown being elevated from a military man to First Consul and then being crowned Emperor. There would also be fans showing his earlier victories followed by fans related to the Peace of Tilsit in 1807, his marriage to Marie-Louise, and his disastrous Russian campaign.

Napoleon crowned by victor and abundance. Courtesy of Fan d’eventails.

Today, fans that have survived from the eighteenth century are viewed as minor works of art. They are considered important because few art forms so pleasingly combine such functional, historical, and decorative uses. Moreover, the stories they tell are still fascinating and the subjects depicted on them cover a wide variety of topics and subjects. Many have also survived, which means you can still see them today in collections and museum throughout the world.


  • [1] G. W. Rhead, History of the Fan (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1910), p. 221.
  • [2] “Mourning Fans,”Tippecanoe County Historical Association, accessed November 17, 2019.
  • [3] Addison, “Spectator,” Rutgers.eduRutgers.edu.
  • [4] Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette, “The Fan, a New Song,” December 6, 1765, p. 1.
  • [5] T. Sheridan, A Complete Dictionary of the English Language: Both with Regard to Sound and Meaning … To which is Prefixed a Prosodial Grammar (London: C. Dilly, 1789)
  • [6] F. Bacon and P. Shaw, The Philosophical Works of Francis Bacon, Baron of Verulam, Viscount St. Albans, and Lord High-Chancellor of England: Methodized, and Made English from the Originals, with Occasional Notes, To Explain what is Obscure; and Show how Far the Several PLANS of the AUTHOR, for the Advancement of All the Parts of Knowledge, Have Been Executed to the Present Time v. 3 (London: J.J. and P. Knapton; D. Midwinter and A. Ward; A. Bettesworth and C. Hitch; J. Pemberton; J. Osborn and T. Longman; C. Rivington; F. Clay; J. Batley; R. Hett; and T. Hatchett, 1733), p. 493.
  • [7] G. W. Rhead, p. 149.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] J. F. Blanco, ed., Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe, 4 vols. 1 (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2015), p. 100.

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