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A Fan in the Hand

An exhibit of fans from the museum’s historical costume collections will open on Saturday, January 20 at the San Bernardino County Museum. “A Fan in the Hand” will run through April 15 and is free with museum admission.

Hand fans have been used for centuries as an accessory for formal dress, as a way to create a breeze, to protect your face, as a souvenir, and even to communicate secretively!   Fans come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and materials, and have their own set of terms used to describe them. The exhibit will feature fans from the Victorian era, turn-of-the-century Art Deco fans, promotional hand-screens, and exotic souvenir fans.

Art Deco fans from the early 20th century feature extravagant feathers, hand painting, and design influences with an Asian esthetic and an Art Deco flair.

Victorian-era fans were not only decorative. They were used to create a nice breeze, or as protection from fireplace heat. Light colored, delicately hand painted fans made a memorable accessory for wedding days or graduation ceremonies. 

Before air conditioning, advertising hand screens represented a promotional idea to place products and services in front of the consumer.  They were given away as gifts in stores, and even handed out to church-goers for use on hot days.

Mid to late 20th century souvenir fans in the exhibit include Chinese, Japanese, and Javanese examples.  Some are hand painted paper, water buffalo horn handles, or chicken skin panels.  Others are hand-woven from palm fronds and other plant materials. 

“The exhibit also explores fan vocabulary,” said Michele Nielsen, museum curator of history. “We’ll present the specific names for types of fans and their construction, of course. But we’ll also introduce a Victorian-era secret language of fans: silent communication that seems silly today but was a very effective and subtle way to indicate relationships. Twirling a fan in your left hand would signal ‘we are being watched,’ for example, and shutting an open fan slowly said ‘I promise to marry you.’”

The San Bernardino County Museum is at the California Street exit from Interstate 10 in Redlands. The museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays and holiday Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 (adult), $5 (student or senior), and $4 (child aged 5 to 12). Children under five and Museum Association members are admitted free. Parking is free. For more information, visit

The museum is accessible to persons with disabilities. If assistive listening devices or other auxiliary aids are needed in order to participate in museum exhibits or programs, requests should be made through Museum Visitor Services at least three business days prior to your visit. Visitor Services’ telephone number is 909-307-2669 ext. 229 or (TDD) 909-792-1462.



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