A hand fan. A simple tool often overlooked beyond its purpose of producing a light breeze to keep us cool in the warm summer months. Once a symbol of royalty in ancient civilizations and a sign of wealth in 14th century Europe has now become overlooked as nothing but an old-fashioned tool. It has been commonly replaced with mechanical fans that lack their predecessor’s intricate detailing and artfulness and prioritize convenience over beauty.
From paper fans folded in the back of grade school classrooms to cheap imitations made of plastic sold at dollar stores, the hand fan of today has lost the prestige it once possessed. But if you look beyond its purpose as a tool, you will find deeply etched beauty within it. Though the fan pictured pales in comparison to its luxurious ancestors beheld nobility, the attention to detail is an art that has not been lost to time. From the overlapping decorated fabric attached to the detailed plastic slats, the hand fan has beauty crafted within every nook and crevice of its design. The hollowed-out designs adorned with gold detailing within the slats and the doily-like lace situated along the edge of the fan bring you back to a time when efficiency wasn’t the main priority of a product.
It begs why we as a society now value products that offer us the most optimal level of convenience. A handheld mechanical fan is slightly more effective than a traditional hand fan. They’re more expensive, more wasteful, and inarguably lack the beauty of the traditional fan. Yet, in our society’s ever-growing obsession with optimizing our time and minimizing any difficulties we may face, the mechanical fan has subjected its older counterpart to a mere decorative piece that pales in comparison in terms of effectiveness.
The hand-fan pictured is adorned with symbols representative of Sicily. An island located in the Mediterranean situated at the tip of Italy’s boot. It is an island with a rich history that is not always apparent beneath its modern portrayal as a popular vacation spot. There, on the island, the hand fan flourishes with the hot weather and relentless sun above you. This hand fan, in particular, is adorned with symbols representative of Sicily. A map of the island naming all its major cities. The symbol of the Trinacria is a Gorgan head with three legs protruding from it, representing the three points of the island and has been around since the days of the Roman Empire. Even the decorative fruit portrays what the island grows, and together these images create a visual love letter to the province. The hand fan can possess multiple histories within the detailing of its unique design. Within this fan, I see a rich history, the history of not only my family’s homeland but that of the various civilizations and cultures worldwide that possed their version of the handheld fan.
When I look at this fan, I see beyond its use. It portrays history and culture. It tells me of the old Sicilian women who sit at the same cafes along the island’s boardwalk that they’ve frequented since they were young, fanning themselves the same way their mothers did. In Sicily, everyone walks slowly; they savour their time and are in no rush to tackle life as quickly and efficiently as possible. I see in this fan a time before my own, a time that persists in small pockets of the world. I see a time where attention to detail for the mere sake of beauty persisted purely based on the human desire to create art. Ultimately this fan represents so much within the detailings of its design that you can discover with just a closer look.
© copyright 2022 Tricia Simpson, Ryerson University.
A Brief History of the Hand Fan, 2008, https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~salvo/@SEA/exhibit/history.asp#:~:text=The%20origin%20of%20hand%20fans,found%20in%20King%20Tut’s%20tomb.
Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2000.
Sicilian Symbols and Their Meaning, 2018, https://italianmagazine.net/sicilian-symbols.php.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.