The Handheld Church Advertising Fan

By William NcNeill |

A Vanishing Relic of Southern Americana

Art and music have always been my life, and it was at Singletery Methodist Church in Dublin, a small farming community in Bladen County, where the Sunday school culture of art and music cast its spell. When I was a kid, the handheld church-advertising fan made a deep impression on me, and I think I understand why: since I grew up in a time and place where people were, for the most part, poor, and artistic images were scarce, I sought them out, and I found them in the church.

In the summers, my church was oppressively hot, and without fans we would have been miserable. Since almost all churches now have air conditioning, the church fan is quickly becoming a vanishing relic of Southern Americana. Because of the church fan’s diminishing role as a utilitarian object and conduit of commercial advertising, I have appointed myself conservator and interpreter. I have collected church/advertising fans for almost 40 years and have over 400 in my collection, which I occasionally display to the public. I acquire them and preserve them, not just as ephemeral artifacts, but as a reminder of an American way of life that is gone forever. The art and advertisements on my church fans resurrect sleeping memories of a vanished world, a warmer world before the cooling breezes of air conditioning.

There was a time when the church/advertising fan was used in homes, churches, court houses, general stores, beauty parlors, barber shops, tobacco warehouses—almost anywhere people gathered on hot summer days. Tobacco warehouses, a major supplier, gave fans to farmers to take home with them. I recall standing on a warehouse ramp among a group of men grasping their new warehouse fans and fanning feverously the heat away while listening to a charismatic Pentecostal Holiness street preacher.

In the South, the first fans were made of raffia, rattan, and woven sea grass. Many of these fans had the names of funeral homes stamped on them.

Most of my vintage fans date from around 1900 through the 1950s and are made of cardstock. There were three types of fans; the most popular was the fiddle back fan attached to a wooden stick, which was used by both men and women. The bell-shaped fan had a hole to accommodate the thumb. The trifold, a three-paneled folding fan, could be carried in a purse and was used by women only.

My earliest memories of church fans recall the time I had to sit on the pew next to my father and mother. When I misbehaved, my father reached over with his fan and conked me on the head.

During church, I was always looking around at the other worshippers. I studied the ways members of the congregation fanned themselves. Sometimes the women tilted their heads back, closed their eyes, and fanned themselves slowly back and forth in a lazy, rhythmic, dreamy fashion. To me, this meant they were sleepy and were probably daydreaming. But when the preacher said something the women didn’t like, they fanned faster and faster.

The fans I liked most were those showing Biblical images depicting scenes of Palestine and the parables and miracles of Christ. These pictures kindled all kinds of fanciful interpretations in my overactive imagination.

handheld church advertising fan

In addition to the warm earth colors, typical of advertisements of the time, what attracted me to the handheld church advertising fan was a sense of mystery. When I display my fans, I want the public to experience the mystery I feel when I look at religious art. Significantly, my fans’ iconic imagery portrays a linear narrative of the story of Christ from His Conception to His Ascension.

We also had church fans at home. In the summertime when company came, we sat in the front yard under the big maple trees, where I listened to the grown-ups’ stories. My mother, a gracious host, served our visitors ice-cold sweet tea along with a church fan. Back then in the 1950s, sweet tea and sweet Jesus were a big part of Southern Hospitality. This was especially true here in the humid Cape Fear Region, where countless local businesses used fans to advertise their services and products.

The fans sometimes shooed away gnats and served as handy fly swatters. The backs of fans were used as notepads to scribble all kinds of cryptic information.

Every summer my Aunt Susie White from Raleigh paid us a visit. Aunt Susie was a sweet old lady whom we regarded as a living saint. Sometime around mid-afternoon Mama would perform a little ritual for Aunt Susie. She would serve Aunt Susie a glass of sweet tea and a slice of delicious pound cake; then she would go to the kitchen door, call me in from outside, and say, “William, fan your aunt Susie while she eats her cake.” Fanning Aunt Susie was a dreaded chore because she took tiny nibbles of her cake and laid her fork down after each nibble. My arms were worn out after all that fanning.

My fans with secular images are an invitation to an excursion through a nostalgic past, a world of two and three-digit telephone numbers and Norman Rockwell-esque paintings, peopled with small town and country folk from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the golden age of the handheld church fan. Through the graphic art and advertisements, you see the social fabric of these times–a fabric of exposed, ragged threads showing both the good and the bad (segregated restaurants, for example).

The covers and backs of the secular fans pitch just about every commercial product of the times: Nehi and Royal Crown sodas, Lucky Strike cigarettes, Red Man chewing tobacco, Frigidaire refrigerators, John Deere Tractors, Vitalis Hair Tonic, Lustre-Crème Shampoo, Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Merita bread, Moon Pies, Neese’s Southern-Style Liver Pudding, and hundreds of other items.

When we examine common objects, such as vintage church/ advertising fans, we make valuable discoveries. I want the public to engage with the materiality of my collection, noting the patinas of age and wear and tear; to examine the handwriting on the backs of the fans–the puzzling messages of scribbled words, phrases, names, and numbers; to consider the unintentional quirky humor and political incorrectness reflected in some of the advertisements for quack medications, ludicrous fashions, and antiquated products of questionable merit. The fans are saturated with humanity; they tell human stories if we are willing to approach them in an imaginative, contemplative manner. The handwriting on the backs of a couple of my fans qualify as historic documents.

handheld church advertising fan

My secular fans, a nostalgic tour de force, trigger deeply buried memories of a vanished world, resurrecting happy memories in the minds of my older viewers, while intriguing, enchanting, and amusing younger generations.

The art on my fans is often corny, but it is all too easy to dismiss my collection of vintage church fans as mere kitsch. Occasionally, I sense that sophisticated viewers condescend and fail to engage with the assemblage. After all, the kinds of people who appreciate the art on my church fans adhere to a different aesthetic. What is perceived as worthless religious kitsch to sophisticated viewers often serves as devotional icons to the unsophisticated. The iconic image of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, for example, has the power to inspire meditation and prayer, bringing comfort to the viewer.

There is little monetary value in my handheld church advertising fan collection. Collectors of worthless, trivial objects are generally eccentric (yours truly included). Collecting is, after all, a gentle madness, a mild form of obsessive/compulsive behavior that is a genetic remnant of the hunter-gatherer instinct.

So, gentle reader, are you a loony collector of vintage trifles—a modern hunter-gatherer traipsing through flea market lala land in search of just one more piece for your awe-inspiring collection? If so, you’re in good company. Your hobby is a bona fide All-American addiction, so I conclude with a benediction for all you insatiable scavengers:

To my fellow rummaging magpies:

May you continue to search high and low, far and wide for your magnificent obsessions. May you trek in and out of antique stores, flea markets, yard sales, and junk yards until you find that elusive, but precious object of your desire. And after you have found it, may you display it for others to admire, or if not actually to admire, to behold while scratching their heads in downright befuddlement.
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William McNeill has performed the program “Fannin’ the Heat Away” for the NC Humanities Council for audiences across NC. You may book his performance by calling Caitlin Patton, program coordinator, at 704 687 1521.

The Cameron Art Museum hosted his exhibit William McNeill: My Life as a Handheld Church Fan – A Rhapsody on Sweat, Sweet Tea and Salvation, November through January 2011-12.

You may contact McNeill for questions or comments at mcneill5@embarqmail.com

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