As our Thanksgiving thoughts turn to turkey (and all the trimmings), one textile collection artifact naturally stands out: the turkey feather fan. We have quite a few examples, dating from the mid-19th century into the early 20th. They were extremely popular – they could be made from readily available local materials, were very functional, and were beautiful as well.
They were sometimes called “church fans” (think un-airconditioned, crowded building) and were often left on the pews as standard equipment. But they were also made and sold for private use. A turkey feather fan was a cherished possession of an elderly woman forced to evacuate her home in Georgia during the Civil War. In a friend’s memoir, she tells us that Captain Mitchell had found his mother ready to depart “with her Bible and a large turkey-tail fan, from which she was never know to be separated summer or winter, praying and fanning herself.”
Our fan shown here came to us from the estate of Miss May I’on Simons of Charleston with the information that it was made by African American fanmaker Tobias Scott (c. 1827-1904). He is listed in city directories as a fanmaker on Water Street from 1876-1898. In one biography of his son, Cornelius, he is described as a “feather fan-maker, at which he prospered.”
Tobias married Christiana Harvey, also of Charleston, and they had 11 children (five died quite young). Five of his children became school teachers, including Cornelius, who also became a Methodist Episcopal minister. [His papers are at USC Caroliniana Library.] Tobias and Christiana are buried at the Old Bethel United Methodist Church Cemetery, Charleston.
The fan is also interesting because of its construction. Obviously made of turkey feathers, the handle is made of braided feather quills (soaked first to soften them), a technique also used by the Choctaw Native Americans in the Southeast.
The wild turkey is the state game bird of South Carolina. After a close call with extinction in the early 1900s, this bird, Meleagris gallopavo silvestris, is the most abundant of the five turkey subspecies in the United States.
TEXTILE TUESDAYS: Each Tuesday we post a piece from our textile collection. Some items have been on exhibit, some will eventually be shown in our new Historic Textiles Gallery and some may be just too fragile to display. We hope you enjoy our selection each week – do let us know if there’s something in particular you’d like to see on TEXTILE TUESDAY! #TextileTuesday