Fan depicting a scene from the Commedia dell'Arte, English School, (18th century), watercolour on paper, Ickworth, Suffolk, UK

Fan depicting a scene from the Commedia dell'Arte, English School, (18th century), watercolour on paper, Ickworth, Suffolk, UK









Short Description:

Fans are made from a wide variety of materials and in numerous different shapes and sizes, and they come from many diverse cultures. Originating as an everyday functional object, the fan rapidly acquired ceremonial and social significance, becoming the utilitarian sceptre of kings, the subject of conversation for bluestockings of the seventheenth century, the toy of frivolous ladies, the vehicle of revolutionary messages, the sentimental possession of the Victorians, the mirror of the Belle Epoque, and an advertising gimmick. Above all, fans are hand-crafted objects and therefore no two are identical, which makes recording and classifying them an absorbing and fascinating historical adventure (source: Alexander, H., Fans, Buckinghampshire: Shire Productions Ltd, 1989 (1st ed), 2002).




Background, History:

For more information about the fan, see the Fitzwilliam museum website:



Bibliography, Online Sources:


A brief descriptive Catalogue of an important collection of such fans and fan-leaves which was formed by Lady Charlotte Schreiber, and presented by her to the Trustees of the British Museum in 1891. The collection consists chiefly of printed examples, with the addition of a few painted by hand. The greater part of its contents have been reproduced by photo-lithography in two folio volumes compiled and published by the collector under the titles : “Fans and Fan-Leaves English,” and “Fans and Fan-Leaves Foreign” (London : Murray, 1888, 1890). The Catalogue has been compiled by Mr. Lionel Gust, Assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings.” (from the Preface by Sidney Colvin, Catalogue of Fans and Fan-Leaves, William Clowes and Sons, Limited: London, 1893).

On-line catalogues:

The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, USA
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK
Museum of London, London, UK
DigitaltMuseum, Sweden (an online source for the museums in Sweden)
British Museum, London, UK (see “Catalogue of Fans and Fan Leaves” below)
Museo dell’Occhiale, Italy
Halwyllska Museet, Stockholm (the search engine is in Swedish only, so type in SOLFJÄDER if you want to have closer look on the fans in the collection).


Museums collections (where online catalogues are not available):

Livrustkammaren, Stockholm, Sweden (in Swedish only) – online catalogue to be available soon.
Greenwich Museum, London, UK



Image Gallery – Fan

An image gallery with material objects and visual sources collected by the partners is currently available here.




Textual Sources – Fan

Research on documents from various published sources and unpublished sources with references to fans is  currently being conducted (by Dr Barbara Furlotti, Postdoctoral Fellow, Research Assistant Fashioning the Early Modern project).

1) References to fans in various published sources:

FANS – published sources

2) References to fans in unpublished sources: Archivio di Stato di Mantua, Archivio Gonzaga:






English French Swedish Italian Danish
“fan” (from 18th century), “fann” (Old & Middle English) “éventail” (17th and 18th century) “solfjäder” (known in Swedish sources from 1635) “ventaglio” (probably in use since early 17th century) “vefte”, voeffte”(1500-1700); “vifte” (from 1700)


A search on the definitions of the fashionable goods selected by the project partners in seventeenth and eighteenth century dictionnaires in English, French, Swedish, Italian and Danish is currently being conducted. A Fashioning Goods  multilingual table overview is in development and will be finalised in due course. Two chronological points (1690 & 1742) refering to the publication of two of the French sources studied have currently been selected as reference points in order to allow for the data from different languages to be studied and in order to track changes between languages and within language:

  • Dictionnaire universel, contenant généralement tous les mots français, tant vieux que modernes, et les termes de toutes les sciences et des arts (…) recueilli et compilé par messire Antoine Furetière, La Haye et Rotterdam, chez Arnoult et Reinier Leers,by Antoine Furetière and L’Academie Française.
  • Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 4e édition, 1762.

The data collected on the fan in 17th and 18th century dictionaries will be cross-referenced and complemented by other types of textual sources, as well as with visual sources and material objects (see appropriate sections on this page).

Data from Dictionaries

Below are listed the definitions for the fan that have been collected by the partners in a number of 17th and 18th century dictionaries and in ethymological dictionaries (where no dictionaries from the period were accessible).

The following Research Collaborators / Partners have made a contribution to the material presented below: Corinne Thépaut-Cabasset (French), Patrik Steorn and Lena Dahrén (Swedish), Barbara Furlotti (Italian), Maj Ringgaard & Sabina Odgaard Heape (Danish), Jasmina Bolfek-Radovani (English).

Search in French Dictionaries:

A. Furetière,1690 – “Les dames en France portent de petits éventails de peau pour se rafraîchir en l’été”.

Académie française, 1762 – “Papier, taffetas étendu sur de petits bâtons plats qui se replient les uns sur les autres, & dont on se sert pour s’éventer. Les bâtons d’un éventail. Un éventail de peau de senteur. Un éventail de papier de la Chine. Un éventail de plumes. Un éventail qui joue bien. Tenir un éventail à la main. Il n’y a guère que les femmes qui portent des éventails.  Eventailliste : Ouvrier qui fait, qui monte les éventails”.

Search in Swedish Dictionaries:

SAOB online: “A tool for keeping [women] cool. Known in Swedish sources since 1635 (Royal Wardrobe). In 1760s fans made of turkey feathers where used”.

Download definition in Swedish from the SOAB online here.

Search in English Dictionaries (in progress):

Oxford English Dictionary online – download entry for FAN here.

All relevant dictionaries from the Eighteen century collections online (Senate House Library London database) have been consulted. Below are two typical exemples of definitions that appear in these sources:

Kersey, J., 1702 : “To cool the  face” (Kersey, John, New English dictionary: Or, Compleat collection of the most proper and significant words, commonly used in the language; with a short and clear exposition of difficult words and terms of art, London : Printed for Henry Bonwicke, at the Red Lion, and Robert Knaplock, at the Angel in St. Paul’s Church-Yard, 1702)

Martin, B., 1749 : “An ustensil used by the fairer sex to cool themselves” (Benjamin, Martin, Lingua Britannica reformata: or, a new English dictionary, London, 1749, 719pp).

Search in Italian Dictionaries:

Crusca, 1612: no definition listed. (Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, Venice, 1612).

Crusca, 1728-28: “Ventaglio: arnese con che l’uomo si fa vento a cagione principlamente di sentir fresco nella stagione calda” (vol. V, p. 230), (in: Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, Florence, 1729-38, vols 6.) [ENG translation: tool used to air oneself in order to cool down in the hot season].

Search in Danish Dictionaries (in progress):

Kalkar dictionary online, 1700-1950: (jf. Sol-, Struds(e)vifte): redskab, som regel ført med haanden, til at fremkalde afkøling ved luftstrøm, beskytte mod solen olgn., bestaaende af fjer ell. (navnlig) tynde plader olgn., der forneden bevæger sig om en fælles akse, saaledes at de kan foldes ud ell. slaas sammen. [ENG translation: “a device, usually conducted by hand, to induce cooling by air current, protect against the sun and the like, consisting of feathers or (mainly) thin plates and the like, which at the bottom move around a joint axis so that they can be spread or folded up.” Pflug, H. O. Den danske Pillegrim. 1707. 611.]




Contribute to our knowledge

Contribute to our knowledge section by sending us the following information using the form at the bottom of this page:

  1. more images of the fan
  2. textual references on the fan
  3. any other information you may have about the fan
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