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Staying cool before Air Conditioning

So summer is here — it’s hot, humid, sticky, and still. Luckily, most of us nowadays can seek refuge in some air-conditioned space, but how did people stay comfortable years ago before air conditioners were available?

Throughout history until the mid-20th century, people lived without air conditioning — somehow! In places where summertime brought hot weather, humankind acclimated to the heat and simply accepted the discomfort as a seasonal part of life. What else could be done? Besides, it was better than the bone-chilling, life-threatening cold of winter.

But humans are practical, all the same. They seek solutions. One ancient cooling device — the hand fan — was depicted 3,000 years ago on Egyptian panels. The Madison Historical Society’s Allis-Bushnell House museum has a nice collection of much newer hand fans; they’re only about 150 years old! They all demonstrate how the desire to keep cool merged with the fashions of the time. Made of silk, paper, ivory, bone, and even straw, some are plain, some fancy, but they all seem to have been used by women. Apparently, expectations for men staying cool were different then.

The first hand fans were flat panels that did not fold up accordion-style, a later improvement designed to save space. In fact, carrying a large flat fan suspended from one’s waist was de rigueur for stylish women; the bigger, the better. The Society has a few of these flat fans, including one made of feathers.

Imagine carrying a fan with a stuffed bird on it. We’ve got one! It’s about 140 years old, made of genuine ostrich feathers with an ivory handle — and a real goldfinch is attached in the middle of the fan. Thank goodness, styles change!

One of our simple hand fans is still very attractive and very sturdy. Pleated palm fronds compose its center, but the fronds are separated into curls on its periphery. One palm is tied into a bow at the base of the twisted palm handle. We think it dates to the early 1900s.

Another flat fan is very fancy. Its oval hand screen is attached to a bamboo handle, and the fan panel is made of etched celluloid sandwiched between a narrow wooden band. It is trimmed with sequins, and its perimeter, somewhat damaged now, is fringed. It was likely imported from Europe in the 1870s. It’s big, too —18 by 10 inches.

We also have several very glamorous pleated folding-style fans. This type of fan design was originally imported from Japan by Portuguese traders in the 1500s. Supposedly inspired by observations of bats’ wings, which fold open and create a breeze when flapped, this fan design was considered exotic. Because it could be discreetly folded away in a pocket, it became a popular fashion accessory. Early folding fans were made of paper and bamboo. Most of those in our collection date from the late 1700s through the early 1900s and are made of silk with ribs of bamboo, whale bone, ivory, or celluloid.

A lovely example of a folded fan from the 1890s looks like a black stick when folded, but, upon opening, it reveals beautifully painted flowers and birds on its inside folds. The ribs appear to be pierced ebony wood with fine etchings. Very classy.

One of the oldest fans in the museum collection is a charming blue and gold folding fan from the late 1700s. Made of paper with ribs of pierced whale bone, it has a hand-painted domestic scene on the fan. Most enchantingly, it has a small oval “flirt mirror” on the last rib, allowing the user to check her appearance or to see what is happening behind her. Oh, those clever women.

It wasn’t just air-conditioning technology that killed the hand fan. It went out of style while woman were joining the workforce. In the 1910s, the suffrage movement and the outbreak of World War I made fans seem frivolous, and the development of electric fans made them seem redundant. Fan collections were even sold to raise money for the Red Cross. Today new hand fans can still be purchased, but they surely are no longer in demand. But air conditioning certainly is.

To see other glamorous artifacts in the MHS collection, see the Flickr album at