Cooling oneself in heatwaves like the ones many European countries have been experiencing this summer may be a rather difficult - if not impossible - task.
Most of us turn to air conditioning, but the less polluting and most stylish way to refresh oneself in these cases is definitely a handheld fan.
It is obviously possible to create rudimentary ones with a piece of cardboard or an old magazine, but it is a great joy to be able to see early examples of fans made with feathers, fabric or paper mounted on wood, bamboo, mica, tortoiseshell, ivory, bone or mother-of-pearl slats.
Hand fans were already popular in classical times - Egyptians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans already used fans. In Christian Europe they were instead mainly employed as liturgical objects in religious ceremonies.
According to the history of fans Chinese emperors already had circular fans and they were made from peacock feathers or woven reeds, while ordinary Chinese people made their fans out of goose feathers.
Invented in Japan between the 6th to 9th centuries (the earliest known folding fan comes from Nara City, Japan, from 747 AD) and made by tying thin stripes of hinoki (Japanese cypress) together with thread fastened at one end with a metal rivet, foldable fans were imported by traders from Asia to Europe.
Around the 17th century fans became more elaborate and they were often decorated with feathers or enriched with silver, gold and precious stones, while rigid fans also became popular.
In some museums it is also possible to admire fans made entirely of decorated sticks without a fan leaf – they are known as "brisé" fans.
All types of fans indicated high status and were mainly used by wealthy people but, by the 1700s, rigid fans had gone out of fashion and folding fans had become the norm.
Most of them displayed painted leaves with religious subjects or scenes borrowed from classical legends and myths or allegories from the Old Testament; sticks were also inlaid with gold or silver pique work.
As the decades passed, fan makers refined their skills and, in the 18th century, fans became mini artworks, made of silk or parchment and decorated and painted by European artists and craftsmen.
Fans also continued to be imported from the Far East by the East India Companies of Holland, France and England in particular.
In the 19th century fans decoration and sizes started varying: folding fans became part of a woman's attire as they could be easily carried around, while rigid fans were mainly used for decorative purposes in the house (at times they also protected a woman's face from the heat of the fire, making sure the wax-based make up remained protected and did not melt).
The themes decorating the leaves shifted in the meantime onto contemporary subjects and pastimes. Paris boasted fan making maisons producing luxury pieces and the fashionable painters who decorated these scenes often signed their work as well (also the tabletiers who carved the sticks and guards left their names on the fans).
While there were couture fans, it was also possible to buy more affordable pieces with a printed leaf that was cheaper to produce.
The 20th century introduced Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles and, from functional cooling devices, fans became also decoratively seductive elements (think about the ostrich plumed fans employed by the performers at the Moulin Rouge to cover their bodies...).
Around this time fans advertising a wide range of products became also popular (you can still spot examples at antiquarian fairs and shops or on e-commerce retailers like eBay).
In the following century fans continued to be made, but by then they had lost their popularity as fashion objects retaining their practical functionality.
As seen in this brief history of fans, these accessories were associated with courts, the nobility and social activities, they were symbols of high status, but were also used in the military as a way of sending signals on the field of battle (in Japan they were also used by warriors as a form of weapon, by actors and dancers for performances, and by children as a toys).
Fans also appear in many different paintings: Carpaccio often painted fans in detail in his works, most of them made with Point d'Espagne gold and silver lace, while the engravings of Abraham Bosse showed fans wielded by men, representations that remind us that fans were used not just by ladies, but also by the judges in courts when the air became too hot.
Some of them are lavish fans made with ostrich or marabou feathers from the Belle Époque period; others feature delicate paintings dating from around the 1880s or ornate bobbin lace leaves from Bruxelles.
It is worth remembering that the earliest known fan-leaf entirely of lace was made in Flanders in the early half of the 17th century for the Duke Brabant; before that time, lace-trimmed fans (as shown by some of the fans in the Museum of Malacology display cases) were made with a silk taffeta or parchment leaf on which lace was sewn.
If you don't like lace, there are plenty of fans with paper leaves with lithographed courting scenes or, for something more glamorous, you could go for the fans with star-shaped sequins scattered on the leaves.
In the museum collection there are grand styles that were probably donned at lavish balls or more subtle and refined pieces that were probably employed for elegant evenings at the theatre or at a concert.
Most fans are characterised by finely pierced and carved mother-of-pearl sticks, but there are two brisé fans from the early and the late 1800s entirely made with mother-of-pearl. One of them belonged to an Italian noble family and features a golden monogram on the guard stick and a marcasite rivet.
Unfortunately, you can't really battle the heatwave with historical fans as they are too fragile to be used for such a fight, but nobody stops us from dreaming of doing so while using an ordinary or a homemade fan to cool ourselves and fantasise of being transported away from the sweltering heat and time travelling to a grand ball in the 1800s.