With LOOK>>, we venture into our wide-ranging collections and bring out a single object to explore in a short video. In this piece, we look at an 18th-century printed fan.
Printed fans had become popular fashion accessories in Europe by the late 18th century, being used for everything from keeping track of dance steps to celebrating historic milestones. This English one, probably printed in the 1790s, sports two winged figures holding a banner emblazoned with the word “Oracle” hovering above a book of fate. It’s a so-called fortune-telling fan. Could a painted piece of paper answer life’s most burning questions? Whether you’d be rich—or lucky in love?
The fan’s possessor would follow a complex set of steps to determine an answer from one of ten Roman gods and goddesses depicted on the back of the fan. The process involved choosing from a set of questions on the front, picking a number from a wheel of fortune, and following the instructions or “explication.” Have a peek at the video (above) to see how all these elements fit together, quite artistically, on the front and back of a paper fan with gilt edges.
Here’s how it worked: say you wanted to know if you were fated to inherit an estate. On the list of questions, that’s number 3. With eyes closed, lay the point of a pin on any part of the circle of numbers. (The existence of pin holes is proof-positive that this fan was called into service.) Let’s imagine you ended up on 8. Look in column eight of the list of deities and locate your number, 3. That indicates Mars. For your answer, turn the fan over and see what Mars had to say about number 8.
Oh, dear. Apologies. Mars has uttered this pronouncement:
“Expect no favours from a friend;
On what you have you must depend.”
What a shame!
Why not try again? If nothing else, it’s a titillating diversion. Which, after all, is the just the point.
Diana W. Thompson is senior writer in the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.
Kate Lain is the new media developer at The Huntington.