19th Century ivory fans collection


About this collection

Folding fans were introduced into Europe in the 1500s through trade with China and Japan. They have many uses beyond just keeping cool.

People have made use of fans both in dress and as a way of speaking without words. Courtship, advertising, warfare or simply dressing to impress often required a different style of fan. 

Clean and tactile, ivory was a desirable material. It is a name for the hard outer layer of huge pointed teeth known as tusks. Hippopotamus, walrus and narwhals (a type of toothed whale) all have tusks, but those of elephants were most commonly used. They were killed and the tusks taken whole from their skulls.

Like plastics today, ivory was formed into handles for knives, piano keys and anything that required a smooth surface that was hard-wearing. Unlike plastics, ivory carried high status as a material due to its price. As the middle-class market for luxuries grew in 18th century Europe, so did demand for tusks, first supplied from coastal African powers and later the territories of European colonial empires. The widespread use of ivory led to the hunting of elephants on a massive scale. 

Ivory was shipped outwards along trade networks, making heavy use of enslaved people to carry the tusks. Elephant populations began to fall in the 1700s and have never fully recovered. Though trade in ivory is now controlled, the future of wild elephants is still uncertain.



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