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The Flat Cap on ... Fans

For the past couple of nights The Flat Cap has been having trouble sleeping due to some unseasonably warm and humid weather. As the UK is not known for its sustained high temperatures he thought it might be time to invest in an electric fan. Keeping the windows open when you live near to a busy motorway isn’t the best way to get a good night’s sleep. And if the background hum of traffic doesn’t keep you awake then there’s always the noise of mating foxes to disrupt even the very best attempts at getting some proper restful kip. Unfortunately for The Flat Cap there’s plenty of both around where he lives. The frisky foxes are the worst noise nuisance though.

Before the advent of the electric fan people had to make do with hand held fans. Back in ancient times paying somebody to fan you was a luxury only available to very rich people like heads of state, opera singers and the most successful tomb raiders. So you had to do it yourself. And of course if you’re fanning you can’t be sleeping. The first fans date back to the fourth century BC and were used by the Greeks and the Romans; both of whom had hot sticky weather to contend with. A Roman emperor had between fifty and sixty slaves whose sole jobs were to keep him from looking sweaty in front of his senators. The most trusted slaves were called upon to fan the Emperor after bouts of strenuous exercise, jogs around the park, and were occasionally present at orgies to keep the air cool. Fast forward to the sixth century and folding fans were invented in Japan. The inspiration behind them were bat wings. People there used them in court and they were given the name “Akomeogi” after the court women's dress named “Akome”. Basically if you lived anywhere that had a bit of sustained decent weather you needed a fan. Especially as ice lollies had still to be invented.

In Japan they took the fan thing a bit further. There they were used in the arts. Nip along to a Japanese theatre and the dancers would each have a fan, and probably the majority of Kabuki actors as well. Audience members didn’t really need any form of air conditioning, such was the degree of fan waving going on about the stage. Not to be outdone Japanese sports fans were cooled down by fan waving referees who used their military fans called “gumpai uchiwas” to control the contestants. Sumo wrestlers however tended to be pretty big chaps and no degree of fan waving was able to prevent them from routinely getting a sweat on.

Fans in Europe started to become big business from the seventeenth century after Portuguese traders began bringing them back from China and Japan. As it was hot on the Iberian peninsula local craftsmen soon began to make their own. In 1644 Spain passed a law which forbade anyone becoming a flamenco dancer unless they had at least two gaily coloured hand held fans (one for weekday dances, and one for weekend and public holiday performances). Flamenco dancers also had to purchase a licence before they could wave their fans for profit. This gave the fan making industry a massive boost and also spawned a demand for souvenir fans which continues to the present day. In 2011 it was estimated that three out of every four UK holidaymakers brought a hand held fan home from their Spanish holiday. And by 2015 fans had replaced straw donkeys and sombreros as the number one holiday memento. Travel experts reasoned that this was probably due to their size and passengers’ ability to fit them into the meagre hand luggage allowance given by low cost airlines.

As noted above the hand held fan is no means to keep you cool on a sultry summer night; for that you need an electric fan. The first of these was invented by an American electrical engineer called Schuyler Skaats Wheeler, who just for good measure also invented the electric elevator and electric fire engine. It’s thanks to Mr. Wheeler that you can go to an all night superstore on a hot muggy night and buy yourself an electric fan for as little as £15. And if you’re inspired to do so you can even do the weekly shop at midnight. But if it’s very humid you’re probably just happy to buy a fan and get back home to bed.

Whist standing outside his all night Tesco The Flat cap bumped into Bill who was loading a large electrical fan into the boot of his car. Bill said he’d always preferred fans to air conditioning and shared the following fan-tastic facts:

  • The ceiling fan was patented in 1889 and it wobbles when the blades are out of balance, although the likelihood of it falling down is rare

  • Fans don’t actually make a room cooler, they just make you feel cooler by moving the air about over your skin

  • A blade-less fan does in fact have blades; they’re just hidden inside the pedestal stand. The stand then draws in as much as six gallons of air per second; about the same volume as a vacuum cleaner

  • In cheaper hotels in Greece (where there’s no air conditioning) you can hire an electric fan for around four euros per night

  • The UK’s only fan museum is located in Greenwich, London

  • In Japan fans are given as New year’s gifts, and the shape is regarded as an emblem of life

  • A punkawallah is a person who operates a punkah (a fan made from palm leaves). The most famous punkawallah was actor Michael Bates who performed the activity in the acclaimed British sitcom It ain’t half hot mum. Despite Bates’ best endeavours co-star Windsor Davies always looked hot and exasperated

  • There is a race horse called "Punkawallah" and it has its own fan club

  • The word fan derives from the Latin word “vannus” which was a fan shaped implement through which air was blown to remove the chaff from grain. This process is also known as “winnowing”

  • The average household will buy a new electric fan every six years

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