A new book by the Braintree Historical Society celebrates the history and beauty of handheld fans in Braintree and Weymouth, where two of the nation’s most productive fan factories were from the 1870s to 1900. History buffs Mary Frazier, 78, and Ruth Powell, 93, researched the fans, local businesses, and factory records.
Curator, Mary Small Frazier calls handheld fans “miniature mobile works of art.” Sitting with her in the new exhibit “Fans of Braintree” at the Braintree Historical Society, you can see why. She delights in flipping open a paper and fabric fan carefully preserved from the late 19th Century, pointing out the details of how it was manufactured and hand-painted by South Shore craftsmen and women, closing it and reopening the leaf from a different angle. You catch flashes of color and geometric shapes.
Who knew that the South Shore was once the country’s leading manufacturer of handheld fans?
“A fan was like a woman’s purse,” Frazier says. ” A woman had a wardrobe of fans. She always had one with her. She would go to a milliner and the milliner would take the same fabric as her gown or hat and make a fan to match.”
Once de rigueur, the fans went out of style in the early 1900s. More than a century later, it is intriguing to imagine the days when they played such a significant role in social interactions. The mere turn of a wrist or positioning of a fan could signify attraction, seduction, rejection. Today a tweet or emoticon might do the same.