It is sometimes said that fans are ‘as old as hot weather itself’! Certainly, their history can be traced back several thousand years and to ancient Egypt, for example, where some of the earliest depictions of fans take the form of relief carvings. An especially well-preserved carving in the temple of Temple of Ramesses III (reigned 1186–1155 BC) shows a figure commonly referred to as a ‘fan bearer’ carrying aloft a long-handled processional fan trimmed with feathers (see image 1) used to cool or shade court officials and dignitaries. Some of the earliest surviving examples were of a similar type and discovered in 1922 when the tomb of Tutankhamun was located and opened by Howard Carter and his team. Of all the Pharaoh’s fans, it is the so-called Golden Fan (see image 2) which perhaps impresses the most, despite its original spray of ostrich feathers having long since disintegrated. Coated entirely in gold leaf, the upper semi-circular part of the handle is chased with a design of the pharaoh hunting ostrich. The discovery of the pharaoh’s fans proves that fans, from an early point in their development, were not simply utilitarian objects but also symbols of status & wealth intended to impress rather than simply cool.
There is evidence to suggest fans of the fixed or rigid variety were popular accessories in the Classical period. In the absence of surviving examples, ceramic wares such as Greek amphorae (see image 3) show figures carrying fans with decorative handles topped with feathers – sometimes identifiable as peacock. Of a similar date (ca. 400-100 BCE) are the so-called Tanagra figurines: small, brightly painted terracotta statues rediscovered during excavations taking place in and around the Boetian town of Tanagra during the 19th century. Dressed in fashionable draped chitons and wearing sun shading headwear, some of the female figures also carry fixed fans with spade shaped screens.
In the Far East, paintings such as the confirm the use of fans from at least the eight century, if not before.