… Hugh frowned upon the Duke’s fan. … "
These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
I had never heard of chicken-skin fans until the first time I read this passage in These Old Shades, one of my particular favorites among Georgette Heyer’s books. Though this story is set in the mid-eighteenth century, chicken-skin fans were still in use during the Regency. But the thing is, they were not made of the skin of chickens, or any other bird. The truth about "chicken-skin" …
Folding fans originated in China and were first seen in Europe during the sixteenth century. Initially, they were considered luxury items and were used only by royalty. However, it was not long before most of the aristocratic members of royal courts had begun using these fashionable status symbols as well. By the turn of the seventeenth century, most people with wealth, and any pretension to status and fashion, were also wafting folding fans at social events. Until the early eighteenth century, most of the folding fans used in England were imported from Italy and later from France. But in 1709, Queen Anne granted a charter to The Worshipful Company of Fan-Makers. From the latter decades of the seventeenth century, into the first half of the eighteenth, the leaves of most fans were made of silk. Though the specific date is not known, sometime around 1750, English fan-makers began using a superior new product to make the leaves of their fans. This product was called chicken-skin.
Despite its name, this strong, flexible integument was not made of the skins of chickens, or even turkeys or swans, which has sometimes been suggested. Instead, this new material for the making of fans was actually a type of fine vellum made from the skins of very young animals, typically sheep, goats and cattle. To quote Bertha De Vere Green, a noted scholar of fan history and design, " … the very finest was obtained by the barbarous practice of killing the mother before the birth of her offspring." Thankfully, it appears this practice had become somewhat less common by the turn of the nineteenth century. The skins were not leather, since they were never put through the tanning process. Rather, they were treated in much the same way as the more mature skins which were intended to become parchment or vellum. They were soaked in a solution of lime and water to clean them, then they were scraped and rubbed with a pumice stone to smooth them. They were stretched on frames while they were still damp. But instead of being left to dry, a follicle pattern was pressed into them, typically with the use of small round seeds, the skins were put under pressure and left to dry. When the skins were fully dry, the seeds were brushed away, leaving the on the surface of the skins the appearance of the skin of a chicken after it had been plucked. Larger seeds could be used to create the illusion of a turkey or swan skin.
The finished skins were extremely thin and delicate, but remarkably flexible and very durable. Because of the method by which the skins were prepared, they were superior to the use of silk in making the leaves of fans. The surface of chicken-skin was ideal for painting in watercolor or gouache, without the bleeding of color which could occur on silk. Chicken-skin also took ink very well, without running, which had been a constant problem with silk. Chicken-skin fans became popular very quickly, because the surface enabled fan-painters to create much more detailed paintings than was possible on silk fans.
Folding fans are comprised to two primary parts, the sticks and the mount. The sticks of a folding fan could be made of carved ivory, tortoiseshell, bone, horn, metal, mother-of-pearl or lacquered wood. Before the introduction of chicken-skin, the mount was usually made of two leaves, one glued to the sticks on each side. Leaves could be made of silk, kid, crape, lace, vellum or paper. If the mount for a fan was to be painted, the leaf intended for the front of the fan was usually painted in much more detail than would be the back leaf. Though very thin, chicken-skin was nearly opaque, and it was extremely strong, which made it possible to use a single leaf as a mount on a chicken-skin fan. The strength of chicken-skin was in large part responsible for the creation of the cabriolet fan. This was a fan with a leaf which typically consisted of multiple, separate strips. The widest strip was attached at the tips of the sticks, with open areas between narrower strips glued below. This open-work leaf was too delicate to be successfully accomplished with any other fan leaf material available at the time.
Chicken-skin continued to be used in the making of fan leaves right through the Regency. Real chicken-skin was used only to make the very best quality fans. However, as the eighteenth century came to a close, counterfeit chicken-skin was made with paper. At the time, paper was made by hand, with rag pulp spread across paper frame of fine wire. Once the majority of the water was pressed out of a new sheet of paper, it was turned onto a square of felt. The surface of the wet sheet was scattered with round seeds, then it was covered with another layer of felt and put under pressure. The resulting paper sheets looked very similar to chicken-skin made of animal skin. This paper chicken-skin was also used to make leaves for fans which were usually sold at a much lower price. Paper chicken-skin was much thinner that real chicken-skin and it was also more fragile and liable to tearing. Therefore, fans made of paper chicken-skin typically had a full mount, with both a front and a back leaf. If one knew what to look for, it was fairly easy to distinguish the difference between real and counterfeit chicken-skin by holding it up to the light. Real chicken-skin would show no grain, with a slightly mottled appearance. Paper chicken-skin could be identified by the pattern of laid and chain lines left by the imprint of the wire in the frame on which the paper was made.
In the early years of the nineteenth century, fan leaves made of real or paper chicken-skin were also printed as well as painted. This made it possible for fan-makers to produce many more fans at a much lower cost. However, in most cases, fans with real chicken-skin leaves which had been printed were still more costly, since they were typically attached to much more expensive sticks, such as those made of mother-of-pearl, ivory or tortoiseshell. Printed paper chicken-skin leaves were most often attached to sticks made of bone, horn or lacquered wood and were usually much less expensive. There were, of course, some unscrupulous fan-makers or haberdashers which sold fans made of paper chicken-skin at the same price as real chicken-skin fans. But a knowledgeable fan buyer would be able to quickly determine if the fan they were about to purchase was real or paper chicken-skin by holding it up to the light.
The next time you read about a "chicken-skin" fan in a Regency novel, perhaps even one by Georgette Heyer, you will now know that it was not made of the skin of any bird. But you will also know that a chicken-skin fan was of very high quality and would almost certainly have very elegant sticks of ivory, tortoise shell or mother-of-pearl. In some cases, the sticks of the very best fans were embellished with colored gemstones made of paste. But perhaps a Regency fan had sticks which were studded with real gemstones rather than paste, mayhap to hide them in plain sight from the villain. Or, might a young lady be given a fan by a persistent and pretentious suitor only to find it was made of paper rather than real chicken-skin. Would that affect her opinion of this suitor? Dear Regency Authors, would a chicken-skin fan serve a purpose in one of your novels, or should they be left to Georgette Heyer?