Eighteenth century ladies fans are not something visitors normally expect to encounter in the National Air and Space Museum. Nevertheless, we have them! The Evelyn Way Kendall Ballooning and Early Aviation Collection, acquired in 2014 thanks to the generosity of the Norfolk Charitable Trust, includes over 1,000 works of art, prints, posters, objects, manuscripts, and books documenting the history of flight from the first balloon ascensions in 1783 through the early years of the twentieth century. Evelyn Way Kendall, one of the great American collectors of the last century, began purchasing Aeronautica in the early 1920s and was still at it in the 1960s. What could have inspired that level of collecting zeal? Over the holidays in 1920-1921, her father, a superintendent with the Canadian National Railways, was involved in the rescue of three U.S. Navy balloonists who had been caught in a storm and carried deep into the wilderness around Hudson’s Bay. One can imagine his daughter walking past a Paris antique shop while on vacation just a year or so later, spying an eighteenth-century snuff box or needle case decorated with a balloon in the window, and, remembering her father’s role in a balloon adventure, succumbing to temptation.
Once begun, Mrs. Kendall would have realized that she had chanced on a rich collecting field. As the first balloons lifted above the Parisian skyline in 1783-1784, they generated a great wave of public enthusiasm. Enormous crowds gathered to watch the first human beings take to the sky. The manufacturers of needle cases, snuff boxes, match safes, card cases, jewelry, clocks, wallpaper, furnishings, ceramic items, song sheets — and ladies fans — discovered that adding a balloon motif to their products would boost sales. With the air age well underway in the 1920s, a number of air-minded collectors like Mrs. Kendall began acquiring these early aeronautical treasures. When the Kendall Collection arrived at the Museum for processing, it included six complete ladies fans, which, to the inexperienced eye of the senior curator of Aeronautics, appeared to date to the eighteenth century. While I am most certainly not an authority on such objects, I was aware that, for a woman attending an eighteenth century ball or salon, no accessory was more important than her fan. By manipulating this delicately painted object in patterns prescribed by “the language of the fan,” she could communicate subtle messages to men and women alike. Supported by delicately fashioned “sticks” of ivory, bone, mother of pearl, or wood, the addition of a beautifully painted balloon to the silk “leaf” communicated the owner’s interest in the latest technological wonder, as well. During the weeks after the arrival of the collection, Vanessa Nagengast, who is processing the Kendall materials, and Greta Glaser, in charge of conserving the items, noticed some key bits of new information regarding the fans. For example, one of them below (T20140072073) was packed in a twentieth century box stamped with the name of the Duvelleroy Company, 121 New Bond Street, London, SW 1. Another fan (T20140072054) had Duvelleroy written in ink on one of its ivory sticks. An internet search revealed that the company was founded in Paris in 1827 to manufacture and sell fans, and that the London shop was not opened until the 1850s. How then, could our fans date the eighteenth century? An email to Elöise Giles, of the Duvelleroy company, led to a contact with M. Serge Davoudian, an antique dealer specializing in fans. He identified the fan in the box as dating to 1900. The fan with the Duvelleroy name on the stick, however, dated to the 1780s. The name had apparently been inked on the stick in the nineteenth century when the antique fan was repaired by the company for resale. To our delight, he assured us that the other four fans were authentic eighteenth century creations, as well. Even the early twentieth century fan carried an important meaning, suggesting that, for the citizens of fin de siècle France, the romance of the balloon symbolized their vision of the years immediately preceding the French Revolution. One of the nicest things about working in a museum is that you are always learning something!