Eighteenth-Century Fans at the Chicago History Museum

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Is anyone a fan of the eighteenth century? Fans have been an important luxury item, status symbol, and practical object throughout history. Fans survive from cultures all over the world, many showcasing incredible artistic virtuosity. While working at the Chicago History Museum in 2014 I was lucky enough to study some of the fans in the collection. This post will highlight two of the eighteenth-century fans in their collection-- just a small sampling of the museum's treasures!


Fan, eighteenth century. Painted paper leaf with mother of pearl sticks inlaid with gold. Gift of Mrs. Robert D. Graff. 1967.46. Chicago History Museum. Photo by Katy Werlin

"Women are armed with Fans as Men with Swordes, and sometimes do more Execution with them."
~ The Spectator, 1711


A fan was one of the most coveted accessories in the eighteenth century. Often incredibly elaborate and extremely expensive, fans were not only a fashion statement but also a show of wealth and status. Fans have two main components: the leaf and the sticks. In the eighteenth century, the leaf could be made from silk, paper, lace, or a delicate type of vellum (skin taken from young animals). The sticks are the skeletal structure of the fan, and higher-quality fans had sticks made of luxurious materials such as ivory or mother-of-pearl. Some of the most expensive fans had sticks inlaid with gold, silver, and precious jewels.

Painted silk fan, late eighteenth century. XA-1221. Chicago History Museum. Photo by Katy Werlin.

This fan, attributed to the late eighteenth century, is extremely ornate. The leaf is painted silk decorated with metal spangles and silver-thread embroidery. The sticks are made from ivory overlaid with silver.

Detail of painted silk fan, late eighteenth century. XA-1221. Chicago History Museum. Photo by Katy Werlin.

The central scene painted on the leaf shows well-dressed nobility leisurely playing a flute, a psaltery, and a musette (a type of bagpipe) in an idyllic natural setting.

Detail of painted silk fan, late eighteenth century. XA-1221. Chicago History Museum. Photo by Katy Werlin.

Flanking the central scene are pedestals surrounded by musical instruments and flowers. On top of each pedestal is a pair of flaming hearts, symbolizing love and desire. Perhaps this fan was a wedding gift or a present from a lover?

Detail of the back of the fan, showing the outlines of the unfinished design. The white tape is from a previous conservation treatment from an unknown date. Painted silk fan, late eighteenth century. XA-1221. Chicago History Museum. Photo by Katy Werlin.

The back of this fan tells an equally intriguing story. Fans were often double-sided, featuring beautiful images on both the front and back. The back of this fan has a basic sketch of a design similar to that on the front, but it is left unfinished. This provides excellent insight into the artistic process of fan artists in the eighteenth century-- the back of the fans hows the beginning of the design process while the front shows the finished product. It also raises a few questions: Why did the artist leave the back unfinished? Did he or she run out of time? Was the client unable or unwilling to pay for the extra work? Perhaps the love affair ended halfway through the production of the fan, and the client did not wish for it to be finished? 

Printed fan, c. 1790s. Gift of the estate of Anna P. Williams. 2380-50H. Chicago History Museum. Photo by Katy Werlin.

This printed fan is from the opposite end of the spectrum from the luxurious fan featured above. Due to the time it took to produce fans and the expense of the materials, fans in previous centuries had only been available to the upper classes and were highly valued luxury items. However, in the eighteenth century, fans became available to a much wider market and became an important accessory for all classes. In the 1720s fan makers began printing fan leaves and mounting them on sticks of plain wood. These printed fans could be quickly produced en masse and sold cheaply. Due to the ease and speed of the printing process, printed fans could be made to commemorate important events and serve as souvenirs for travelers.

Detail of printed fan, showing the off-center placing of the central image. Pinted fan, c. 1790s. Gift of the estate of Anna P. Williams. 2380-50H. Chicago History Museum. Photo by Katy Werlin.

This printed fan is much less meticulously crafted than the painted fan above. The main image, of a mother an her two children, is off-center and does not quite fit into the circular blank space left in the background. The sticks are made of wood and painted with a simple design. Silver spangles decorate the leaf.

Back detail of the fan, showing the stitches holding the spangles in place. Printed fan, c. 1790s. Gift of the estate of Anna P. Williams. 2380-50H. Chicago History Museum. Photo by Katy Werlin.

As can be seen in this image of the back of the fan, the spangles are sewn through the paper, leavig the stitches visible on the back. Perhaps the owner of this fan added the spangles herself to bring a little sparkle and personality to her mass-produced accessory. Or maybe a merchant bought several printed fans, customized them with spangles, and resold them.

We will probably never know the full story of these fans. Why was one left unfinished? Who added the spangles on the other? But it is in these intriguing details and questions that we find a connection to the people of the past, allowing us the briefest glimpse into their lives and stories.

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