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Out & About: Woodstock has the perfect exhibit for fans of fans

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    A fan that is part of the "Fan-tastic" exhibit at the Woodstock History Center. (Woodstock History Center photograph) Courtesy photograph—Courtesy photograph

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    A fan that is part of the "Fan-tastic" exhibit at the Woodstock History Center. (Woodstock History Center photograph) Courtesy photograph—Courtesy photograph

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    A fan that is part of the "Fan-tastic" exhibit at the Woodstock History Center. (Woodstock History Center photograph) Woodstock History Center photograph

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    The "Fan-tastic" exhibit at the Woodstock History Center can be viewed from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. (Rachel Kurland photograph) Rachel Kurland photograph

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    The "Fan-tastic" exhibit at the Woodstock History Center can be viewed from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. (Rachel Kurland photograph) Courtesy photograph—Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2021 9:47:41 PM
Modified: 7/31/2021 9:47:41 PM

As summer rolls on and air conditioners rumble on, it’s worth looking to the past to find one way to beat the heat that was economical, eco-friendly and fashionable.

Hand fans were once an essential part of an upper-class woman’s attire. Some were lace, while others were hand-painted on paper or carved out of ivory. Others had feathers or sequins. There were fans for mourning, for dances or for everyday use.

They were about much more than waving air at your face to cool down.

There’s a selection of all those types of fans — and many more — in “Fan-tastic,” an exhibit of around 50 fans at the Woodstock History Center. They represent about half of the fans in the museum’s collection, said costume curator Rachel Kurland, who put together the exhibit. While fans have been featured in previous exhibits, this is the first time they are headlining.

“It’s pretty amazing for a small town to have something like that,” she said. The fans were donated to the nonprofit organization throughout the decades, as were about 200 period gowns. “We have the advantage that a lot of people have second homes and also travel, so that we probably have more formal clothes or upscale clothes than you would expect in a Vermont town.”

The fans are displayed in cases in an upstairs room of the history center on Elm Street in downtown Woodstock. Kurland cleverly set up mirrors so that people could view both sides of the fans, Jennie Shurtleff, director of public relations, pointed out during a tour of the exhibit.

“The backs are often lovely, too,” Shurtleff said.

People who traveled would often buy them as souvenirs. There were separate fans for church, others for concerts and those made specifically to look good in candlelight. The collection contains at least three fans made by the famed Duvelleroy fan maker in Paris.

“We have an ivory fan that is intricately carved on both sides and each side has something different, and that’s something that’s very difficult to do,” Kurland said. “That was a surprise.”

The fans represent more than the women who used them: They also show the skill of the people who created them.

“They were really an artistic outlet for a long time,” Kurland said. “Because it was a way for an artist to paint something quickly and get some money to then support the big oil they were working on, hoping to find a buyer.”

Lace fans were made one of two ways: A piece of lace was either made specifically for a fan, or an existing piece of lace was shaped to fit an already constructed fan. Another interesting feature was a small mirror affixed to one side, where a woman could check her appearance — or someone else’s.

“They could also angle it so they could check out what was going on in other parts of the room without making it seem like they were spying,” Shurtleff said.

While Kurland was working on the exhibit before the COVID-19 pandemic, the delay allowed her to delve deeper into researching the collection and write a book that gives more detail about the fans. The Fan Association of North America was particularly helpful with assisting Kurland with her research, and she also connected with experts at The Fan Museum in London.

“It was great timing for me because I had time to do it and because the people that I was contacting had all been sent home from their museums or their auction houses so they had time on their hands, so they were willing to look at what I had written and give advice,” Kurland said. “It was sort of the silver lining to the COVID cloud.”

Fans started going out of style as the world emerged from the Victorian and Edwardian eras into the Roaring ’20s, when changing times dented their practicality.

“They were used a little in the (19)20s and ’30s, but once women started drinking cocktails and smoking cigarettes, they really didn’t have a hand free for a fan,” Kurland said.

Additional exhibits

Other exhibits on display at the Woodstock History Center include “Hindsight 20/20” — about the history of the town — and “Contributions and Sacrifice,” which focuses on World War II.

Since the center reopened, visitors have shown quite a bit of interest in “Contributions and Sacrifice,” which includes items loaned by families in Woodstock. While the exhibit focuses on what it was like on the home front during the war, it also pays particular attention to the young men who lost their lives in battle.

“It was a huge loss to the community to lose nine young men in the war,” Shurtleff said. One of those men was Charles Soule, who was killed in the Battle of the Solomon Island on July 15, 1943. His family shared letters and other items with the history center.

Shurtleff also put together a display of the advertising encouraging people to support the war effort. There were posters directed at women to change their style of dress for rations and others to buy war bonds. People in Woodstock also served as plane spotters.

“There was a fear Windsor and Springfield would be bombed, and consequently we had a spotting tower on Vail Field,” Shurtleff said.

Factories in Windsor and Springfield, Vt., manufactured parts for weaponry and other essential items.

“Hindsight 20/20” was originally set to open in 2020, hence the title, but “it also reflected when you look at things in the past ... you see things more clearly,” Shurtleff said.

It begins with information about the area’s earliest inhabitants — Native Americans who lived in New England before white settlers drove them from their land. It also looks into the type of land and soil farmers chose to grow their crops on, “really helping people to understand why they chose sites for their farms and why they decided to cultivate certain lands,” Shurtleff said.

Editor’s note: The Woodstock History Center, located at 26 Elm St., is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is free, but donations are welcome. For more information, visit, email or call 802-457-1822.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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