Field Notes: Church Fans

by Kristy Tillman
The church fan has long been a fixture in the ritual of worship in African American churches. In the days before air conditioner became ubiquitous, hand held paper fans displaying religious motifs became a staple in southern churches to cool parishioners. Over the last century they have transitioned from simple ephemera into an iconic cultural symbol in the black church. The church fan has been on my list of ʻcurious aboutʼ subjects for some time now. Last week on one of my favorite social media outlets the topic came up again and I decided to dedicate this weekʼs Field Note to taking a closer look at the church fan as a piece of art.

One of the most striking things about the church fan are the motifs displayed that range from traditional religious iconography such as the last super to imagery of black families in worship and children in prayer. It was not uncommon to break from immediate religious representations to feature prominent black leadership such as Martin Luther King, Jr. Outside of its functional use as a body cooling the device the fan took on a life of its own acting as a graphic messenger to the black community. The scenes work as
poetic meditations that reflect a point of view of everyday black life. The imagery also serves as a visual narrative of changing ideals over time within a community.

Within their historical context, it would be safe to say that the scenes represent an enthusiastic idealism that provided a source of strength within what was often one of the few safe havens for Blacks, the church. In their imagery, black church fans, reveal much about the past and their use as a cultural icon which is supported by their continued relevance despite the prevalence of air conditioning.

The use of the fan as an advertising space came to prominence around the early 1900s when the commercial printing press came into wide use. All sorts of businesses from funeral homes to insurance companies placed advertisements on the back of fans. The fans became the best means of advertising to a captive black audience, and solidifying the church as an early economic power.

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