Civilizations divided by both time and location are united with the mutual connection of the natural world. Animals were praised in folkloric panegyrics that told of both practical and religious significance. Tools fashioned from the bone of an animal will often bear carvings that depict a tale of culture or perhaps the crest of a family name. Such craftsmanship becomes passed down from generation to generation, with origins that become obscured or aggrandized with the passing of time. History is hidden under the recondite veil that is this mythology, yet it is a passageway that can be followed by the attentive eye.
I am pointing to a Finnish "puukko" knife, a versatile tool used by hunters and craftsman alike. The handle is often carved to tell a story.
Our new exhibit, now on display in the east balcony of the Bourne Building’s upper floor, exemplifies such hidden history. The Lapps of Scandinavia, the Chukchi of Siberia, and the Inuit of North America are various cultures indeed, yet they meet at the mutual point of mythology. Although their cultures may seem distanced and different in appearance, in essence they each celebrate the animals that are beloved in their societies.
The whaling industry brought together cultures from around the globe, and New Bedford as the whaling capital was no exception to such diverse international influences. The most unsuspected of objects tell the story of these travels – the handheld fan.
Advertising Fan featuring Bissell's Carpet Sweeper
“Fans: A Link Between Cultures” is the latest online exhibition of the New Bedford Whaling Museum that features the museum’s highlighted collection of these interesting objects. With a unique assortment of fans, dolls, a nineteenth century Valentine and more, this exhibit conveys the symbol of the fan’s importance to the history of trading influence from the Pacific Islands to Western Europe.
Ranging from public advertisement to a secret language of love and involving scores of materials and textiles, this exhibit appeals to historians and textile aficionados alike. These artifacts relay the small but captivating story of 19th and early 20th century American culture.
ECHO interns Rose Horton (history) and Jodi Stevens (MA-fibers) researched the fascinating history of fans and compiled this exhibit to portray this small yet significant aspect of New Bedford’s economic, cultural, and trading history.
Fans were used to "speak" a secret language of flirtation.
To view this exhibition, please visit