Phizbah’s Work Experience

We recently enjoyed the assistance of a local student called Phizbah Elford. Usually, we ask our work experience placements to write about their time at the museum but Phizbah has made an interesting departure from the norm to discuss her favourite object from the collections:

Folding fans were first recorded being used in Japan, shown in the depiction of a god. They later found popularity in China, from where they were exported to Portugal, Italy, and Spain. Folding fans became a popular accessory during the reign of Henry 8th where they were used to adorn women’s dresses, and remained popular through the reign of Elizabeth 1st, who had 27 in her possession when she died.


One of the main functions of the hand fan from the 16th century onward was to communicate with others. An intricate fan language was created, with popular signs, such as: resting the fan on your right cheek to say ‘yes’, and your left cheek to say ‘no’; pressing the handle, or half open fan to your lips to show a kiss is allowed; and twirling the fan in the right hand to say ‘I love another’, or in the left to say ‘we are being watched’, and so on. However there is evidence to suggest that the fan language was made up by a business as an advertisement for their product.

The folding or hand fan, experienced the peak of its popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, and has been named by the Christian St Jerome as an emblem of chastity. However, fans were also hugely popular for a few hundred years either side of the dates mentioned and were seen as a necessity for any women to have. This particular fan, most likely, dates from the late 19th century, following an 18th century style with the inclusion of the u-shaped hook and its decorative ribbon. The materials of the fan also hold a lot of symbolism, such as the ivory, one of the most popular materials for the sticks, which symbolises chastity, opulence and virtue; the ribbon symbolizing purity; and the silk leaf represents comfort and luxury.

Even the types of flowers painted have their own specific meanings, for example the rose, as everyone knows, symbolises love. Another flower depicted on the fan’s leaf is the orchid, which represents luxury, beauty, and strength. It also shows snap dragons, which symbolises deception and graciousness; as well as bluebells, that represent humility and gratitude; and honeysuckle, which simply represents happiness.


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