1876 Japanese Allure

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February 13, 2013 by Ephemera Society

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By Diane DeBlois

The year is 1876; the place, Philadelphia. The great Centennial exposition (formally, the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and products of the Soil and Mine) had been open since May 10, but it was now June and the city was suffering in a heat wave. On the promenades of the fair, and in the buildings, ladies were cooling themselves by fluttering large paper folding fans. The fans were available, inexpensively, at newsstands and city shops, and were given away as souvenirs at exhibits throughout Fairmont Park. Most of the fans were printed with some image of the fair — fine chromolithographs, crude woodcuts, or appliques.

The folding fan had originated in Japan in the first century BCE, and had become popular amongst fashionable Europeans in the 17th century. In America, such fans were an ‘upscale’ accessory — made of silk, lace, or feathers attached to ivory or tortoiseshell sticks. With Japanese imports flooding the 1876 fair, a sandalwood and paper fan was suddenly available to all.

The fad for Japanese motifs in all American decorative arts — from clothing to china to typography — is generally attributed to the enormous success of Japan’s presence at the Centennial Exhibition (the year before a trade fair introduced some of the same motifs in San Francisco but the Centennial was more influential). Japan was one of the few countries to erect a government building, and a “Japanese Bazaar” building in traditional style was also shipped to the United States in pieces to be re-erected here by Japanese craftsmen. Inside these buildings, as well as in the main edifice pictured here, was displayed the whole panoply of goods that were soon to be widely available in American markets.

The folding fan illustrated here was, no doubt, an inexpensive Japanese import with a traditional woodcut of cranes on one side, and a framing device of oriental figures on the other — rather crudely printed in three colors. Inside the frame was overprinted, probably in Philadelphia, a lithographed image in black of the main building of the Exhibition with the names and addresses of several of the city’s hotels: the Irving House, Guy’s, Colonnade, St. Cloud, La Pierre, Girard, Continental, Bingham, American, Merchant’s, Washington, Markoe. It is possible that the hotels collaborated in the printing, and distributed the fans at the fair to attract business. Other examples of this fan are known with different back scenes — spreading familiarity with Japanese art while combating a heat wave … and, eventually, providing a new vocabulary of flirtation.

In a crowded public space, holding the open fan with both hands signaled to a swain, “forgive me;” hiding the eyes behind an open fan, “I love you;” touching a right brow with the folded fan “when may I see you;” bringing the fan handle to the lips, “you may kiss me” and so on. These delicate souvenir fans were saved as reminders of a great fair, but perhaps also of flirtatious play.

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