sweating the sermon

Church-Fans-Front-and-BackOn March 22, I journeyed across Georgialina to Washington, Georgia, to speak to the Kiwanis Club. Prior to speaking, Mr. Steve Blackmon gave me a tour of seven historic homes that had something unique in common. All had been moved in total or in part to their current location. Expect a column on that soon.

Steve reads my columns and he knows that I often write about things that are no more, and so he gave me six unique gifts: vintage handheld fans that had been used long ago in my hometown. You just don’t see fans in church anymore. Banished by central air conditioning. What beauty we lost, even though we are more comfortable in “de-humidified” air down here in the South. Summer brings revivals, and as a boy I recall sitting though many a sermon watching ladies fan themselves in a hot and humid sanctuary.

What’s a handheld fan? Well, this definition of a handheld fan doesn’t come close to conveying its beauty and purpose. “A handheld fan is an implement used to induce an airflow for the purpose of cooling or refreshing oneself.”

“Induce an airflow” … Sounds rather technical, does it not?

Handheld fans amount to an art medium. Those of us who grew up before churches installed air conditioning have fond memories of fans. Ladies, in particular, used them to circulate air and to cool the skin during, shall we say, a feverish sermon. Those old fans had another purpose too: advertising. The fans were freely given to churches. Each fan’s back read “Compliments of” and then the ad copy would follow.

Take a look at these photos. I have no idea how old these fans are but no doubt they go way back. As you look at my photos, no doubt you’ll find the phone numbers interesting. One phone number on the back of the fan with a pastoral scene of a bridge over a small waterfall is just two numbers. 71. That’s the number given for Rees Oil Company and Smalley’s Service Station. Services advertised include Cities Service products, batteries, tires, and accessories.

Another fan shows a cottage sitting amid trees. On its back is an ad for Sims Repair Shop. Services listed include general auto repairing, electric and acetylene welding, radiator repairing and cleaning, Chris-Craft and Martin outboard motors sales and service. Phone 113. This fan must have been used in the early days of Clarks Hill Lake aka Strom Thurmond Lake.

Another fan brings back memories for me of the times Dad and I would stop by Tatom’s Service Station. Phone 2201 for Gulf and Star tires, batteries, and accessories. As you can see, phone numbers have gone from two digits to four. Does that mean more people were getting phones back home? The front of the fan depicts an angel with outspread wings hovering over a small girl with a doll and a boy flying a kite. The angel is their protector as the children stand on the edge of a precipitous cliff. Another Tatom’s Service Station fan portrays Jesus with a staff in one hand and a small lamb in the other as He sits amid a flock of sheep. It’s a classic “church fan” as we used to call them. I recall at Easter many handheld fans portrayed the cross or lilies, and one showed the larges stone rolled back from Jesus’s grave.

Another fan features a line drawing, black and white, of a historic church in Richmond, Virginia. The trees and grass surrounding it are green indicating that a two-color printing process created the fan. The text reads: “In this church, erected in 1741, the oldest in Richmond, Patrick Henry delivered his immortal ‘Liberty or Death’ oration.” The caption goes on to say that many famous people are buried here including Elizabeth Arnold Poe, mother of Edgar Allen Poe. On the back is an advertisement that reads: “Cooling Compliments. R.L. Crook & Sons Groceries and Meats. Phone No. 29 Lincolnton, Georgia. We invite and appreciate your trade! Our service, quality and prices will please you. And then beneath two black-and-white drawings of clerks and a customer are the words “Excellent Meats” and Fine Groceries.”

The handles on these fans, by the way, remind me of the tongue depressors country doctors used to gag me with. They look like industrial-strength ice cream sticks.

I hear that some companies still manufacture the old-fashioned fans but I’ve not see any in years. I appreciate Steve’s gift to me and I’ll take good care of them.

It’s said that few art forms combine functional, ceremonial, and decorative uses as elegantly as the handheld fan. They’ve been around a long time, and surely would make a comeback if we lost electricity for good. Ancient men used them at least 3,000 years ago to fan the embers of fires to keep the fire going. Those fans created heat but the ones we used in church kept the heat at bay, or at least tried to. If nothing else, they greased the wheels of commerce, brought a quaint touch to churches, and now thanks to people like Steve Blackmon who saved some, serve as historical evidence of simpler times.

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Images: the photos were taken by the author, Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]