The recent renewal of a display on whales in Whangarei Harbour required a sojourn into Whangarei Museum's textiles storeroom.

What do textiles have to do with whales you may think?

Well, among the life jackets, military uniforms, linen samplers, furs, and silks is a collection of dainty ladies' accessories. While many of the hardwearing parts of these accessories are made from wood, Bakelite, and other plastics, much like today, most of the earlier pieces are composed of whale bone.

Several silk fans stood out in their delicate splendour, featuring tiny sequins, gilt, fine netting, hand-painted scenes, and ornately carved whale bone handles.


One such selected for the whale display is from a collection of 15 oriental and European fans bought by Alison Moor on a trip to England in the 1930s. Mrs Moor's niece, Dr K Bowden, donated this collection to Whangarei Museum in 2004.

This close-up shows the intricate detail and craftsmanship that went into the fan's creation. Photo / Supplied
This close-up shows the intricate detail and craftsmanship that went into the fan's creation. Photo / Supplied

This particular folding fan (2004.53.5) is in the French style, with lush hand-painted garlands of flowers and leaves, gold borders, and a central 18th century style painting, marked by "R. Serond".

The painted scene is a classic idyllic and romantic scene often seen on this period of French fans. It depicts a couple, likely in love, sitting in a garden and accented by doves recently released from their cage.

The materials and decoration of this fan suggest it was crafted within the 19th to late 20th centuries, although its date is unknown.

Fans have been around for thousands of years and quickly developed into an intricate art form, from a functional item to a fashion accessory indicative of wealth and social class.

Early Egyptian, Asian, and European fans were leather or cloth hand screens with wooden sticks, trimmed with feathers. More varied materials were explored in the 1500s-1700s, and some of the most ornate were represented in Queen Elizabeth I's wardrobe.

At her death, Elizabeth I left 27 fans, some of which are described as having gold montures (sticks and side guards) set with rubies, emeralds, and diamonds and dyed feathers. Others of this period were made with ivory or tortoiseshell montures and silk, paper, or leather cut to imitate lace, and were sewn with inserts of mica to make them shimmer when fanned.

In the mid-1700s, printed fans were mass produced to reach the lower end of the market. The ivory, tortoiseshell, or mother of pearl montures of the 18th century are more ornamental, decorated with carved relief or piqué with silver or gold, or alternated with wood to striking effect.

Folding hand fans continued to be made and used in much the same way throughout the 19th century varying with fashion trends. At the turn of the 20th century, fans were smaller but still popular fashionable accessories until the practicalities brought by WWI.

A small revival in the 1920s was the last serious period where folding fans were used, but their impracticality and frippery finally weighed out in the face of electric fans and a modern lifestyle.

All of this decoration required much planning and care in the workshop, which interestingly often employed female staff to glue, mount, fold, and paint various styled and sized fans.

Ivory for montures was often imported from as far as China. By 1800 the whaling industry was well set up in New Zealand waters and provided a steady import of whale oil, meat, ivory, and bone into the European market.

The large quantity of bone and ivory produced from a single whale means that many ladies and gentlemen strolling around the streets of Europe were adorned with accessories (clips, buttons, stays, walking sticks, umbrellas) constructed from New Zealand whale bone.

Possibly even our silk folding fan, now on display, has a handle of New Zealand whale bone which was brought home with Mrs Moor in 1930.

• Georgia Kerby is exhibitions curator, Whangarei Museum at Kiwi North.