Collector will showcase his collection of handheld church fans

Mar. 17, 2014 @ 04:46 PM

As a boy growing up in Bladen County, William McNeill took particular note of the small, handheld fans that were commonplace at the country church his family attended.
He loved the religious imagery pictured on the fans, which was often contrasted by an advertisement for, say, snuff or a local funeral home on the opposite side.
“Most church fans have advertisements,” says McNeill, of Elizabethtown, who owns a collection of more than 400 such fans. “I call them quirky advertisements — they might be for ludicrous fashions or dubious medical cures. I have a lot of fans that advertise tobacco warehouses and tobacco products. They advertise everything imaginable.”
McNeill, who may be as close to a church-fan scholar as you’ll ever meet, will present “Fannin’ the Heat Away: A Celebration of the Art and Social History of the Handheld Church Fan,” during a lunch-and-learn program Thursday at Theatre Art Galleries in High Point.
The program is free, but registration is required, and an optional boxed lunch from Southern Roots is available for $20.
Performing beloved hymns and gospel songs as he showcases a large selection of fans from his collection, McNeill will transport his audience back to another place and time — namely, the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s — when the sight of handheld fans wagging back and forth to diminish the heat was commonplace in American churches.
McNeill, who shares his collection with audiences across North Carolina, will discuss not only the fans’ place in Christian art, but also their role in the world of advertising and in the visual culture of the American South.
“I’ve met two other people who have collected these fans, but I’m the only one I know of who has created a performance based on my collection,” says McNeill, who says he has been collecting church fans and other religious ephemera for about 40 years.
“My presentation will interest collectors, Southern culture devotees, people who are interested in religion, history buffs, art enthusiasts — especially art that’s considered kitsch — and people interested in the history of advertising. It covers all those areas.”
McNeill began collecting church fans around age 20, initially finding fans through antiques shops, estate sales and things of that nature. Through the years, though, he’s had a lot of help amassing his collection.
“Family members have bought fans for me, and friends look for fans for me when they travel,” he says. “Since I’ve been doing my program for the N.C. Humanities Council (the program he’ll do in High Point), complete strangers have brought me fans. One man sent me boxes of handheld fans, including some that illustrate the history of military uniforms.”
Although McNeill’s collection covers a broad range of subjects, the largest commonality among the fans is the religious imagery, he says.
“I can tell the life of Christ through about 60 or 70 fans,” McNeill says. “I can record His life — from the Annunciation to the Ascension — visually through the art on these fans.”
Unlike some collectors of vintage ephemera, McNeill says he doesn’t spend a lot of money on his collection, typically no more than $12 or so for a fan.
“There’s very little monetary value to my collection,” he says. “These are just common objects, but I think when you examine common objects, you can make some unusual discoveries.”
For example, he’s intrigued by stains on the fans. Wear and tear. The patinas of age. Handwriting and cryptic drawings on the backs of the fans.
“Sometimes I feel like my fans are inhabited by ghosts,” McNeill says. “I wonder who actually owned the fans, and how they were used and where. That kind of thing fascinates me.” | 888-3579

Want to go?

“Fannin’ the Heat Away: A Celebration of the Art and Social History of the Handheld Church Fan,” a lunch-and-learn program featuring church fan collector William McNeill, will be presented Thursday, from noon until 1:30 p.m., at Theatre Art Galleries, which is located within the High Point Theatre, 220 E. Commerce Ave.
The program, which is made possible by a grant from the N.C. Humanities Council, is free and open to the public, but reservations are required.
An optional boxed lunch from Southern Roots is available for $20.
To register and/or purchase lunch, call Theatre Art Galleries at 887-2137 or register online at