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Fans can be beautiful, intriguing, useful, quirky, and informational. You'll experience all the magic fans can offer in the exhibit "Cool Breezes: Handheld Fans in Fashion, Art, and Advertising."

This online exhibit features 80 fans that were originally part of a traveling exhibit from ExhibitsUSA emphasizing fans from the 20th century. More than 40 other fans from the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum collections are featured in the exhibit, including Wisconsin fashion and advertising fans from the 19th and 20th centuries.

Before the advent of electric fans and air-conditioning, handheld fans provided comfort on hot summer days. They began as useful unadorned objects, but during the sixteenth century became beautiful and elaborate fashion accessories for women.

Around 1800 women's fashion changed abruptly from hoop gowns to clingy dresses. Fans seemed bulky and coarse next to the new fashion and went out of style. In the Victorian Era, they returned to popularity as eveningwear accessories. Fans made during this period were usually mass-manufactured.

Around 1930 sophisticated women began to prefer carrying cigarettes and cocktails at elegant functions and fans came to be seen as old-fashioned. However, handheld fans did not disappear completely. Businesses had dabbled with using fans as a form of advertising by the mid-19th century, but used them more frequently after the 1876 Centennial Exposition, where vendors sold souvenir fans of the event.

Fans' function as an advertising medium continues today, especially at sports events and other places where there is no air conditioning.