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Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Look at Hand Fans

Contributed by Valerie Battle Kienzle

The school year is winding down for most folks. Ahead are the lazy, steamy days of summer and figuring out ways to stay cool.

As a child, I spent many summer days with one or the other of my grandmothers. If my visit included a weekend, I knew to pack a dress for Sunday worship services.

Both grandmothers lived in small southern towns with white frame churches and no air conditioning. "Cooling off" during worship meant trying to catch a breeze from one of the sanctuary's open windows or using one of the cardboard hand fans found on each pew. The fans advertised the local fineral home.

I came across an old hand fan recently. It advertised a now-defunct daily newspaper from my hometown. I started thinking about hand fans. I own several that are 100+ years old and belonged to relatives. There was a time in U.S. history when most women carried a hand fan in their pockets or purses. A hand fan could provide a bit of cooling breeze and help keep insects away.

These days, hand fans are a bit of an oddity. You just don't see a lot of people in the U.S. pulling fans from their pockets or purses when the temperature soars, but that wasn't always true. Hand fans have a centuries-old history that covers many countries and cultures.

Fans are mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature. Fans are shown in art and drawings from Egypt, Persia, Babylon and China as well as Greece and Rome. Some of the artistic representations date back to 2600 B.C. It is believed that fans were used in some churches during the Middle Ages to brush away insects and to "refresh" the worshipers who sat through lengthy services. Fans were used in Spain in the 14th Century, and Christopher Columbus is said to have given a feather fan to a queen after his first trip to America.

Throughout history, hand fans were unique, hand-made works of art. The guard sticks and ribs were made of carved wood or ivory and were covered with silk, hand-painted paper, lace or other delicate materials. Some were decorated on both sides.
During the 1800s until the early 1900s, at a time in U.S. history when women had few opporunities to verbally express themselves in public, particularly to the opposite sex, hand fans became a popular silent method of communication. A "language" of fans evolved so that refined, demure women could say volumes without uttering a word. To express themselves, they simply placed or moved their fans. For example:

* Touching the fan to the right cheek meant "yes."
* Touching the fan to the left cheek meant "no."

* Moving the fan with the right hand meant "I love another."
* Holding the fan in front of the face with the right hand meant "follow me."

* Sliding the fan across the forehead meant "you have changed."
* Touching the fan to the left ear meant "leave me alone."

* Touching the edges of the fan with the fingers meant "I want to talk to you."

* Opening and closing the fan meant "you are cruel."

* Holding the fan closed meant "do you love me?"

* Sliding the fan on the cheek meant "I want you."

* Sliding it across the eyes meant "please go away."

* Leaving the fan hanging from the hand meant "we will continue being friends."

And finally,

* Throwing the fan meant "I hate you."

By today's standards, fan communication seems innocent and archaic. Our world is filled with reality shows featuring screaming, profanity-spewing participants; endless relationship drama; and a general attitude of rudeness.

It's hard to image, but did people really live and communicate this way? Was there indeed an era of "polite society?" If so, what happened? Why the change? Will societal norms someday change again? It's something to think about....

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