Tag Archives: history of fans

“Airy But Costly Trifles:” Society Ladies’ Historic Fans: 1890



Airy but Costly Trifles Belonging to Well Known Ladies

Curious Histories Connected With Many of the noted Fans Owned by New York Ladies—Painted and Decorated.

New York, Sept. 10. [Special Correspondence of the World-Herald] Likely enough, there is some truth in the tradition regarding a bit of lace and ivory called a fan, which belongs to a certain New York family, and which says that it was “bartered for a kiss.” This heirloom came originally from the Imperial family of Russia, but at what time in its career or by whom it was “bartered” tradition has kept no record. Of beautiful and costly fans owned by New York ladies, one is a Chinese affair belonging to Mrs. Frederick Vanderbilt. It is a very dream, so delicate in its ivory carving. Mrs. Hicks-Lord is the lucky possessor of a really magnificent fan. It is composed of the finest and daintiest point d’Alencon, with an artistic combination of leaves and flowers. The frame is of white figures, with any quantity of ornamentation in gold. It was worn suspended from a chain of diamonds and pearls. Mrs. Whitelaw Reid has a most exquisite affair in the shape of a fan. It is of white silk, embroidered in colors and ornamented with small pearls. Mrs. Coleman Drayton has a vellum fan, painted with a scene from Spanish history and mounted on carved sticks of sandal wood. Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer has one painted by Seloir and valued at $2,000. Mrs. Whitney has a very valuable point d’Alencon fan, mounted on a frame work of gold. Of fans with historical associations, one belonging to Miss Furniss was painted in Spain in commemoration of the signing of the Utrecht, with the inscription upon it: “Por el amor de la Pay.”


The late Mrs. John Jacob Astor had probably the finest collection of fans in the country. There were among the number many charming specimens of the famous Vernis Martin, which time has not robbed of its soft lustre. The mounts are of paper, silk and vellum, exquisitely painted, one representing the “Toilet of Venus.” The sticks in ivory are overspread with the Vernis Martin, showing a surface of great brilliancy. Another dainty one in Mrs. Astor’s collection represents a Champetre group of youths and maidens upon a crag overhanging a bit of summer sea. Perhaps one of the choicest fans is one belonging to Mrs. Newhold Morris. It is of crepe lisse, delicately painted, edged with point d’Alencon and mounted on sticks of mother of pearl. Of other fans belonging to New York ladies, one is a regency fan with a scriptural subject painted upon the mount, the sticks being decorated with Chinese enamel faces in cartouches. Mrs. Jesse Seligman has many costly fans. One of the Louis Quinze period has depicted upon it a scene from harem life, and is decorated with gilt and silver medallions upon kid. A regal fan made over a hundred years ago for some almond-eyed empress of the flowery kingdom is now at the Metropolitan Museum of art, where this “thing of beauty and joy forever” has a large case devoted exclusively to its own royal use. This fan is an airy, fairy combination of gauze, ivory, jade and many other precious metals of exquisite workmanship.


A fan belonging to a New York lady was originally given by Napoleon to Josephine and then by the empress to Mme. Campau, from whom it passed to its present owner. Of other beautiful fans owned by fortunate New York ladies, one painted by Detaille is a spirited picture of horses taking the fence at Jerome Park; another, by the painter Borra, minutely depicts a christening scene before a Spanish alcalde, while a third shows a charming skating scene in the Bois de Boulogne, painted by Lafite. The fan which Mrs. Levi P. Morton carried on the night of the centennial ball is an heirloom—exquisitely carved ivory sticks and charming water color painting on white silk.

“The Swedish Nightingale,” Christine Nilsson, is an enthusiast in the matter of fans. She has a collection of rare and beautiful specimens. Among the number is one which was presented to her by the ex-Empress Eugenie. It formerly belonged to Mme. DuBarry—possibly it is the famous one valued at so many thousand francs. Another of the fair singer’s fans is one which was given to her by the crown prince of Russian and is an exact copy of the one that belonged to the queen of Oude.

There are many private collection of fans, those of Baroness A. Rothschild and Mme. A. Jubinal of Paris being the more valuable. In the former collection is a very ancient fan of woven bulrushes and painted in various colors. It is ornamented with pearls and has a handle of jade. Another very rich fan, which now belongs to M. Eugene de Thiac of Paris, is the one presented to Marie Antoinette on the birth of her son, the dauphin, May, 1785. This fan is of ivory, open worked and richly carved. It was painted by Vien and was designated as the “handsomest and most celebrated fan in the world.” A fan, now in the possession of the countess of Chambord, formerly belonged to Ninon de l’Eclos. It is of tortoise-shell, incrusted with mother of pearl and the leaf painted with an episode from “Jerusalem Delivered.” As early as the tenth century the fan was common France among the titled dames, and at a later period it was affected by the gallants of the day. In China every drawing room is so abundantly supplied with fans, that each caller on a reception day is presented with one as soon as she enters. For a lady to carry a fan is entirely out of the question.

Mme. Pompadour had a wonderful fan. “Lovers in a riot of light, Poses and vapourous dew,” is the poetry of the subject. The prose of the matter is that it had a lace mount which cost $30,000. It took nine years to make the sections, each of the five containing a medallion. The miniatures were almost invisible to the naked eye, but revealed a wonderful delicacy of execution under the microscope.

Watteau, Lebrun, Gerome, Bonheur, Boucher, Laufe, Rosalba, Carriera and Garnarvi are some of the famous artists who helped to paint beautiful fans for the Grande dames of their times. Shakespeare in several of his plays alludes to the fans of the period. These were usually suspended from the girdle by a golden chain, a fashion which has been revived in our own day. The first Greek fans were made of acacia, plantain and lotus leaves. In the time of Euripides peacock feather fans were used. These fans were much used by the Romans also. The great circular fans, which are used on state occasions still in Rome, are called flabella.

A Chinese fan was found among the effects of the queen of Ah-Hotip, who lived a thousand years or more before the Christian era and has sticks and crown still covered with gold and around the tops are holes still visible where the ostrich feathers were affixed. In the museum of the Louvre there is a Chinese fan made of bamboo leaf and ornamented with bulrushes. It is not less than fourteen centuries old.

Queen Bess of “peppery temper” was called the patron of fans of which she had a large collection. It was the only gift, so she declared, that a sovereign could accept from a subject. In the hand of a Spanish woman the fan – “el abanco” plays an important and most attractive part. During the delightful summer nights, when the moon sheds her light around, the Prado presents a romantic pictures, there is much magic in that little zephyr, folded and unfolded with a careless ease which none but Spanish women can display, moved quickly in recognition of a passing friend or elevated and opened over her head as if to frame it. There can be no doubt but that it helps on affairs of the heart. Camping by the blue vault of heaven many a love tale is then told and listened to with favor.

Regarding the flirtation qualities of the fan, a writer of society verse has written the following lines: 

HE SPEAKS. Painted and perfumed, feathered and pink,

Here is your ladyship’s fan.

You gave me to hold, I think,

While you danced with another man.

Downy and soft like your fluffy hair,

Pink like your delicate face;

The perfume you carry everywhere

Wafted from feathers and lace.

Painted and perfumed, dainty and pink,

A toy to be handled with care;

It is like your ladyship’s self, I think,

A trifle as light as the air.

 For you are a wonderful triumph of art,

Like a Dresden statuette;

But you cannot make trouble for my poor heart,

You innocent-faced coquette.

For I understand those enticing ways

You practice on every man.

You are only a bit of paint and lace,

Like that delicate toy—your fan.


Omaha [NE] World Herald 14 September 1890: p. 10

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil always equips herself with a fan and considers that far too little attention has been devoted to the fan’s potential as a weapon. She does not speak of that roguish little tap on the manly chest, which is so necessary an aid to flirtation, but rather of fracturing the wrist of some malefactor or overzealous suitor, as Mrs Daffodil has had occasion to do.

A lady needs only a little ingenuity in the choice of her fan guards to ensure her perfect safety. Iron fan guards, while an obvious choice, are too tiring to the wrist. Mother-of-pearl, satin- and rosewood are decorative, but useless in an emergency. Lignum vitae or boxwood, with their dense character, would be excellent choices. Chemists, we read, are experimenting with productions of gutta percha and rubber. If substantial enough, or if weighted, rubber fan guards would produce the same effect as what is vulgarly termed a “cosh” and might be useful when traveling alone.

In a situation such as a ball, you may find yourself equipped only with the standard issue ivory or mother-of-pearl fan. If a so-called gentleman offers you an insult, it becomes a nice question of which you value more highly—your virtue or a costly fashion accessory? Think carefully about wasting a hand-painted silk Duvelleroy on a cad. Speaking practically, virtue is easily simulated, while it is difficult, if not impossible, to repair a crack in an ivory fan satisfactorily.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.