The end of the American Civil War saw the rise of the Gilded Age. A time of opulence for some and hardship for many, this era reached its heyday towards the end of the 1890s. From the salons and opera houses of Paris to the halls of the fine houses that lined Fifth Avenue, women’s fashions took a turn toward the modern. Where old and new money, adorned in fine silks and exquisitely beaded attire rubbed shoulders over fine wine and respectable conversation, women’s fashion blossomed.
This beautiful fan, dating between 1880 and 1890, is a fine example of craftsmanship, a fashionable yet functional accessory. With a fan in hand, a woman displayed a particular air of refinement while remaining cool and refreshed in crowded ballrooms. This piece has a finely scalloped black lace leaf and mother-of-pearl sticks carved à jour and gilded. When folded, each ornately decorated guard displays a medallion with what are most likely the initials of the owner, “B. F.” When unfolded, the fan transforms into a statement. The lively figures dancing across the surface may be mistaken for cherubim. However the images on this piece these are thought to be the classical putti. Unlike their religious counterpart, putti were most often associated with secular values—erotic love, romance, leisure, prosperity and wealth. The sentiments and values artfully reflected in the delicate layers of this fan are a subtle yet true reflection of the times.
Joanna Burgess is a Design Educator who has been immersed in the field of education for over ten years, first as a classroom teacher and now as a consultant working with various museums and organizations around New York City. When she isn’t teaching, writing or spending an inordinate amount of time on the internet, Joanna can often be found knitting or tending to her apartment garden.