The beginning of the fan movement: brief history of the first fandoms

Author: Tetiana Holubovska

A little bit about fan studies: what, why, what for?

Newton’s third law says: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Basically, that means that nothing can exist without feedbacks. And, obviously, the action is bigger – the bigger reaction it will cause.

Of course, Sir Isaac Newton was talking about psychic and a pair of forces acting on the two interacting objects. But this law becomes even greater from the fact that this formulation we can use in reference to literally anything.

Let’s separate ourselves from the world of physics and dive into the mysterious fan studies. In contrast to, for example, an art or history studies, which, we may say, explore actions – fan studies are completely dedicated to the reaction part. Even when nowadays we should agree with the fact, that some of the fan’s works, also known as fan fiction, are becoming an independent piece of art by itself (the latest and most popular example is the book from the British author E.L James “Fifty shades of Gray”, which was developed from a “Twilight” fan fiction series originally titled “Master of the Universe” and published episodically on fan-fiction websites under the pen name „Snowqueen’s Icedragon“). So, fans can’t exist without the object they devote their energy and time to, but the questions are, whether the object itself can exist without fans?

Etymology of the word “fan”

To answer the question of relation between fans and the object, they are being fan of, I tried to look into the definition of the word “fan” at first. But it appears, that even though fan studies become more and more popular (in June 2016 at the University of East Anglia will take place the fourth annual Fan Studies Network Conference) there is still no concrete understanding of this concept.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “fan” as “someone who admires and supports a person, sport, sports team, etc.:” Unlike it, the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries define fan as a shortened version of the word “fanatic”.  It comes from the Modern Latin “fanaticus” and means “insanely, but divinely inspired“. Firstly, it was used for a temple or sacred place (Latin fanum), but with time also started pertain to a person. Philosopher George Santayana defines “fanaticism” as „redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim“. The word “fanatic” shows in English around 1550 meanings “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion”, since 1647 it took its modern sense “extremely zealous”, since 1650 – become used as a noun.

The other version of appearance of the word “fan” is that it was created from the word “fancy”. “Fancy” is essentially the same word as “fantasy”, from the Greek “phantasia”, its meanings “shading through appearance, opinion, enthusiasm for something” – and sometimes delusion. The Dickson Baseball Dictionary cites William Henry Nugent’s work, asserting that the word “fan” was derived from the “fancy”, a term from England, referring to the fans of a specific hobby or sport from the early 18th century to the 19th, especially to the followers of boxing. Later the word was shortened to “fance” and then just to “fan”.  

Interesting that the word “fan” itself first became popular in reference to baseball enthusiasts. But, “the fancy” was a term for sport enthusiasts long before “fan” first appeared in US baseball circles in the 1880s. Essayist William Hazlitt wrote in 1822 of a man “whose costume bespoke him one of the FANCY, and who had risen from a three months‘ sick bed” to go to see a prize fight.

Although, mainly applied to boxing, ‘the fancy” were also the followers of other sports, as well as enthusiastic of other activities.

But the earliest records use the word “fan” for sports enthusiasts linked the word to “fanatic” from the start. One of the first written records – in the Kansas City Times in 1885 – says: “Of course a fan is a fanatic.”

The other interesting version of the origin the word “fan” deeply connects with its other meaning. “Fan” is also the word for something for blowing air with. It came from the Latin word “vannus” and originally meant “shovel or basket for tossing and winnowing grain”.

There is even a suggestion that sports fans originally were the people, who fanned themselves and that way they got their names. The other version is that they were windbags.

However, even though the word fan become popular at the beginning of 19th century (the word fanatic in the middle of the 17th century) in relation with sports, the phenomenon of enthusiastically devoted to something or somebody people are much older. In my opinion, first fans appear at the same time as first product of human life.

First fandoms

When the simple interesting in something: sport, book, movie, etc. become a movement? When a person can call himself a fan? When it starts to be more than just an enthusiasm? As it strikes me, the main defining factor to answer this question is the presence of fandoms.

Urban dictionary defines “fandom” as “the community that surrounds a TV show/movie/book etc. Fan fiction writers, artists, poets, and cosplayers are all members of that fandom. Fandoms often consist of message boards, live journal communities, and people”. So, in the other words “fandom” is a community of fans, who create their own subculture.

Fandom can arise from any kind of human activity or interest. It can be focused on some celebrity, certain book or movie. Also the interests of the fandom can be more widely defined and include different hobbies, fashions or genres. The word was created with the using of the word fan and the suffix – dom (like the word kingdom). According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary the term was firstly used in the 1903. The same way as the word “fan” originally it was used with reference to sport.

However, even then the word “fandom” did not exist as there were already some features of its occurrence even in the ancient word. In some way all famous legends can be defined as a fan fiction (even though the term itself would not enter the lexicon until the mid-’60s, around the publication of the earliest fanfic journal, the Star Trek-themed Spockanalia). Back at the times, when there were no printing machines and generally only priest kept the hand written copies, most of the stories were transferred from person to person in an oral way. What did the famous Zeus? How can you defeat the Gorgon? All answers people can get from another one, and only he knew what details were raised by a bad memory or add with the help of a good imagination. Of course, there had to be some written versions of these stories, but they were available only for those, who can read (and it was not such a big number of people) and also could be rewritten at any time.

For example, the interesting fact is that the originally version of Camelot did not include Merlin as a character.

But in the middle of 15th century Guttenberg and his printing press changed everything. Of course, the first books were available only to the wealthy part of society, but as printing became cheaper, the ability to read became obligatory. By the late Victorian era, there were all resources for raising the fandom movement.

The first modern fandom, in the way we understand this term nowadays is considered to be the fandom of the literary detective Sherlock Holmes. Mostly, it has this status thanks to its fans, who proclaimed themselves the members of first fandom. “We are the oldest fandom. We’re the reason the word fan originates from fanatic. Don’t mess with us!” – write them on the popular Internet portal Pinterest.com. However, these words indeed have some basis. The first fan works, which are known till our days, were written by Sherlock’s fans. This work, Sherlockians (the name the fans called themselves) named parodies and pastiches. After Holmes was “killed off” in 1893 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (which also led to a several demonstrations from the unpleasant fans) in order to keep their favorite character alive fans began to write their own stories, publish and discuss them. It was the beginning of the fan fiction.

One more of the oldest literary fandoms is Joyceans. This is the fandom of the famous Irish writer James Joyce, and particularly his famous book “Ulysses”.  27 June 1924 James Joyce wrote a letter to Miss Weaver in which he mentioned: “There is a group of people who observe what they call Bloom’s day – 16 June”. It was the first time, then people (organized by John Ryan (artist, critic, publican and founder of Envoy magazine) and the novelist Brian O’Nolan) had a symbolical walking in the places the main character of the book “Ulysses” Leopold Bloom spend his time. The first Bloom’s day was held on the 50th anniversary of the event in the novel, which also took place on the 16th of June. Nowadays, for more than 90 years people throw-out the world is still gathering together to celebrate this day. The celebration itself consist of reading the book, theatrical representation and etc. Of course, aside from that, Joyceans are well-known by their fan fictions too.

Aside from literature, there is also one of the oldest and biggest fandoms – railway enthusiasts. There is a plenty of names, such asa railfan”, “rail buff” or “train buff (American English), “”railway enthusiast” or “railway buff” (Australian/British English), “trainspotter” or “anorak” (British English), or “foamer” (pejorative for American railroaders) and all of them describe person who is a fan of a rail transport. There is even a term “metrophile” to identify a railfan who has a bigger interest in the subway.  The term gricer has been used in the UK since at least 1969, and is “Said to have been current in 1938 amongst members of the Manchester Locomotive Society”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. One of the most popular railfans nowadays is the character from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory” Sheldon Cooper.

Talking about the oldest fandoms definitely should be mentioned the First Fandom. This is an informal association of early, active and well-known science fiction fans. In the year 1939 was held first Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) which was organized by the World Science Fiction Society. Twenty years later a number of fans at Midwestcon (science fiction convention held annually in the Cincinnati, Ohio area by the Cincinnati Fantasy Group. Science 1950) realized amid table-talk. As a result was created an organization for longstanding fans under the initial chairmanship of Robert A. Madle. Currently the organization allows several classes of membership. For example, a Dinosaur is a member who was active before the first Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) held on July 4, 1939, while the Associate Membership requires provable activity in fandom for more than three decades. The other thing why this fandom is so important is because they were one of the first to create their own jargon – fanspeak. More than that the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medievalist re-creation group was formed from the science fiction fandom.

From the science fiction also appeared the new kind of fandom – media fandom. By the Fanlore, a collaborative site by, for, and about fans and fan communities that create and consume fan works, the term media fandom first appeared in the 1970s to describe fans of televised or filmed science fiction as opposed to literary science fiction, but is now often applied much more broadly. Media fandom splits from science fiction fandom in the early 1970s with a focus on relationships between characters within TV and movie media franchises, such as Star Trek and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

With the development of television and especially the Internet, fans were given opportunities not just to create their work faster and easier, but also to make stronger relationship with each other, to organize communities and even to change the way of their favorite TV-shows, books and etc., by communication with its authors.


At the end of our short, but hopefully interesting trip to the beginning of the fan’s movement I would like to answer the question from the beginning. Can the object itself exist without the fans? It seems to me, that the answer is obvious. The same way fans cannot live without their favorite book/hobby/movie/etc. the creators of these products cannot exist without them. Of course, fans did not create Sherlock Holms, but they helped character to live even after the year of 1893 and remain the same popular nowadays. Fans do not create James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, but they make it great. They do not build the first railway station, but, without any doubt, they help to make it better. For sure, we can find thousands more examples of cooperation between fans and creation, between action and reaction. The cooperation which is the essence of life.


Brown, Scott (2009-04-20). Scott Brown on Sherlock Holmes, Obsessed Nerds, and Fan Fiction. Wired. Condé Nast. Sherlockians called them parodies and pastiches (they still do), and the initial ones appeared within 10 years of the first Holmes 1887 novella, A Study in Scarlet. [online] Accessible on: http://www.wired.com/2009/04/pl-brown-6/

Coppa, Francesca (2006). „A Brief History of Media Fandom“. In Hellekson, Karen; Busse, Kristina. Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. pp. 41–59. ISBN 978-0-7864-2640-9.

Douglas Harper. „Fan (n.2)“. Online Etymology Dictionary. [online] Accessible on: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fan

Fandom – Definition of fandom Merriam-Webster.[online]. Accessible on: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fandom

Gricer, n.. Oxford English Dictionary. [online] Accessible on: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/gricer

HAYNAL, André., Miklós MOLNÁR a Gérard de. PUYMÈGE. Fanaticism: a historical and psychoanalytical study. New York: Schocken Books, 1983. ISBN 0805238174.

James Joyce. Letters. Vol. 1. Edited by Stuart Gilbert. NY: Viking, 1957. Corrected Ed. NY: Viking, 1966.

Media fandom. Fanlore [online] Accessible on: http://fanlore.org/wiki/Media_Fandom#cite_note-1

The Cambridge English Dictionary [online] Accessible on: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/fan

The Vocabularist: Are fans fanatical or fanciful?. British Broadcasting Corporation [online]. 22.09.2015. Accessible on: http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-34298659

Urban Dictionary [online]: Accessible on: http://cs.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=fandom




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