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The first folding fans to be produced in Europe were inspired by examples brought over from the Orient, and by the 16th century Italy became the first European country to make them. They were soon to be produced throughout Europe, although the ones imported from China by the East India Companies remained popular. Fans had previously been a fashion accessory reserved for the aristocracy, but during the 18th century they became accessible to virtually all classes, and with the invention of lithography they became cheaper to produce and more readily available.
The themes featured on these fans often reflected developments in the fine and decorative arts of the period, or were inspired by historical and cultural events. Fans were also used as means of flirtatious communication, and the way ladies held or positioned their fan would convey a message, usually to one’s beloved or to would-be suitors. This code was published in contemporary magazines or etiquette books, and The Young Ladies Journal of 1872 reported on the significance of these gestures.