They fluttered them flirtatiously, wafted them to keep cool and matched them to the very latest trends and then, after over 200 years of being a super stylish must-have, British women condemned their fans to the fashion graveyard.
It was a very sudden death and the killer, says fan collector and specialist Mary Cooper, was the cigarette.
“It happened very quickly when women began to smoke using those long cigarette holders in the 1920s. They didn’t have enough hands. Women would have a glass of champagne in one hand, a fan in the other and a bag on their wrist but when the cigarette came along they had to ditch something, so the fans went,” says Mary, who is determined to keep their memory alive.
She is a long-time member and press secretary for the Fan Circle International, a worldwide group of enthusiasts and collectors keen to pass on their enthusiasm and knowledge. Most recently she was recruited by Tennants Auctioneers in Leyburn to head up a new fan department as consultant specialist.
She has just valued and catalogued for the March 9 fan sale and is giddy with excitement about the lots.
She is also preparing for another sale, a fan exhibition and workshop all taking place in June.
There was an obvious gap in the market for Tennants after the larger London-based salerooms, including Sotheby’s and Phillips, closed their fan departments. While it’s not as popular as antique porcelain, fine furniture or jewellery, those who collect are “fanatical”.
There are good reasons for this. Fans are fascinating and many are works of art made by highly skilled craftspeople and artists. When well-known artists were at a loose end, they often painted fans for high-end French manufacturers.
While the world of antique collecting is fickle, fans also appear to have been a good investment. A lace fan from 1900 bought in 1979 for £160 is in the March sale with a guide price of £1,200-£2,000.
Treasure hunters may like to know that if they happen upon a 1790 Chinese carved tortoiseshell brisé fan, one sold at the last fan sale for £3,800 .
If you’d like to start collecting, they start at about £120 to £200 for a 19th century fan. The most expensive are by Faberge and are encrusted with jewels. Expect to pay £60,000 for one.
Fans became popular in the West in the 1500s thanks to Catherine de Medici. A patron of the arts, she introduced them to the Italian court and then to the French when she married their king. Elizabeth I also carried them.
Imported from Asia by the East India Company and sourced from makers in Italy, France and Spain, their popularity grew and they became an established fashion item. You can find them carved from shell, bone and wood, fashioned in metal, lacquered, made from lace, paper, embroidered, painted and bejewelled.
Early fans from the 15th to 18th centuries often told religious and mythological stories in pictorial form as many women were not taught to read and books were rare. “Anyone who was anyone had a fan in the 18th century. At that point, they were restricted to the wealthy,” says Mary.
In the 19th century they became more affordable to the burgeoning middle classes. Some fans had games printed on them. Others had musical scores, dance sequences and Bible verses. “We had one in the last sale called the Lottery of Love. On one side there were speech bubbles in French asking ‘Do you love me’ and on the side there was a choice of “no, yes and possibly”. “That would have been used for flirting,” says Mary.
Cheaper fans made of wood and paper appeared in the late 19th century and early 20th century and advertisers took full advantage. They were impregnated with new perfumes and given away at balls and the theatre.
In France, railway companies printed fans with their timetable and the cost of a ticket. By 1910 fans were a big hit with the mass market until the cigarette consigned them to the back of the cupboard.
“Even though paper fans were mass produced, they can be very valuable, especially those made to commemorate events because they were throwaway items so not many survived,” says Mary.
“There aren’t many 18th century fans in good condition, especially silk ones, because the humidity was poor then.”
The Fan Museum in Greenwich, London, holds an excellent selection for those who want to learn more. While fans are still used in hot countries and are made as tourist mementos, these tend to be poor quality.
“There are still a few high-end fan makers in France and they make them to give away at fashion shows and balls for Louis Vuitton and Chanel.
“This makes them collectable as they are limited editions,” says Mary, who is also a well-known expert and dealer in antique costume with a special interest in lace.
Most of her career was spent in Yorkshire, though she now lives in France and she started her own fan collection after buying a lace fan in 1990.
An invite to a talk by Fan Circle International followed and her fascination grew.
“They were keen to get some younger people involved. Now I’m 60 and I feel the same way. It’s one of the reasons why I am doing the workshop at Tennants. It is aimed at passing on knowledge and getting others interested in fans and possibly collecting them,” she says.
“It is a lovely hobby though my advice is always buy those in the best condition.”
Collection for sale
The next fan sale at Tennants is on March 9 and includes The Judith Kennedy Collection of Fine Antique Fans and selected items from other private vendors. Viewing is on March 7, 10am-4pm, and March 8, 9am-6pm and the morning of the sale on March 9. Tennants is also staging a Fan Circle International exhibition throughout June followed by another fan sale on June 27. The fan workshop with Mary Cooper is on June 25 and tickets are £28. www.tennants.co.uk