Hand fans that both cool and teach history
  • Our cultural history on the face of a church fan
  • Bold mosaics celebrate history of Phila. church and its city
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    A time when hand fans cooled church-goers

    I remember their brown faces and white uniforms. They stood at the door of the church, likely hot themselves, handing out paper fans to help cool us against the rising heat in the sanctuary.

    Adults and even the children accepted them with quick and eager hands, and started fanning just as soon as they got them. The heat had already taken its seat among the pews, and parishioners knew that they were in for a hot sermon – either from the minister or the temperature.

    Most of the fans were supplied by funeral homes, which advertised their name, address and phone number on the back. It never occurred to me whether they were donated to the church or purchased by it. I was a child, so those business dealings were of no consequence to me. I was just happy that the fans were always available.

    church fans

    These four church fans with African American images were for sale at an antiques mall in Georgia.

    As the service commenced and the temperature rose, ushers walked unobtrusively along the outer aisles of the pews clutching a handful of fans, checking to see if anyone was in need of one. During a rousing sermon, they were also quick to the side of a parishioner touched by the spirit, fanning her (always a woman) into quietude.

    The church hand fans I remember always had the faces of people who looked like me, even when my school books did not. Dick and Jane with their dog Spot may have been in my reader books, but on Sundays, little black girls and boys with smiling faces and loving moms and dads were in force.

    As a child, I never really thought much about who they were. I realize now that they were a reprieve from the stereotypical images of black children in most mainstream books, magazines and other publications. These fans showed healthy, well-to-do smiling children nicely dressed, with parents who seemed to adore them.

    church fans

    These two fans of Mahalia Jackson and Booker T. Washington were educational.

    The images resembled the children on some fans I came across recently when I stopped by the Big Peach Antiques Mall in Byron, GA, while visiting my family. I always drop by this antiques mall hoping to find some African American memorabilia. Most times, I don’t. Last December, I did find a 1944 album by James P. Johnson whose cover was designed by David Stone Martin. I had been on the lookout for Martin’s cover illustrations.

    This time, the church fans were the only African American-related memorabilia that I saw. Selling for $3.95 each, they separately featured two young girls, Mahalia Jackson and Booker T. Washington. They were supplied by two funeral homes, a benevolent society/funeral home/ambulance service and a finance company owned by a man named Buck (“Borrow Your Bucks from Buck”), all located in Fort Valley, GA. Likely, all or most of these were black businesses.

    The two fans of Jackson and Washington were particularly interesting because they were not only utilitarian but they were also educational. If you’d never heard of either of them, you’d never forget them after repeatedly whipping their images through the air as you fanned yourself.

    church fans

    Two funeral homes supplied these fans, which were apparently put to good use.

    The fans were never to be taken home, although a few people did. The ushers always reminded us to leave them behind or hand them back. They were a precious commodity, and the church wanted to re-use them on subsequent Sundays.

    “Please leave fan on seat?” “Please leave the fan on seat” were handwritten on the back of one of the fans at the antiques mall, along with the name of the church, Usher’s Temple C.M.E. (Colored Methodist Episcopal) Church. The backs of the fans also contained handwritten numbers and other notes.

    The church is now part of the Fort Valley State University Historic District. The second principal of the predecessor to the university – it was started as Fort Valley High and Industrial School in 1895 – was H.A. Hunt, the company name on the back of one of the fans (the benevolent society). His burial site is also part of the district.

    Since most churches are air-conditioned these days, I wondered if fans were still offered to parishioners. So I went Googling, and found that they are still being made, sold and donated. They are still being used in churches, and some people have their own personal fans.

    church fans

    A handwritten note asks parishioners to leave the fans on the seats.

    One thing that apparently has changed are the sponsors. In the past, funeral homes and insurance companies seemed to be the most common suppliers and sponsors of the fans. They were given away to attract customers for those businesses.

    Today, the type of advertiser has expanded to include car dealers, colleges and McDonald’s. The Census Bureau in 2010 distributed fans to churches to recruit workers, especially in African American communities that are typically wary of census takers.

    On the web, I also found several collectors, exhibits of African American church fans, and one collection donated to a university.

    Allee Willis, a songwriter, performer and much more, has been collecting fans since the 1970s, and expanded her collection after working with James Brown and Alice Walker (for the “The Color Purple” musical).

    church fans

    The backs of two fans advertise the sponsors.

    William McNeill of Wilmington, NC, has a collection dating back to the early 20th century. The earliest are from black churches, and made from woven straw, grass and reed. In a photo accompanying a story about McNeill, he held a copy of the Mahalia Jackson fan. Using his collection and music, he gives presentations on the role of fans in advertising and the social history of the South.

    Artist and historian Marianetta Porter exhibited 15 African American fans at the Slusser Gallery in the School of Art and Design at the University of Michigan in 2010. She has a 1950s fan with an African American family with children, which likely is from the same period as the fans at the antiques mall. Porter has also created fans of her own that mimic the original church fans.

    Do you still use a fan? What are your memories of church fans?


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    1 Comment

    1. Can’t find any free. I am tired of buying them. I live in Cleveland, OH but I am from Georgia. I tried
      to get my sister to try and find some. Most of the churches in the South have air. Therefore, it
      is hard to find fans.

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