How ceiling fans enabled slaves to listen in on their owners’ conversations and glean information

Mildred Europa Taylor January 10, 2022
Enslaved people on a plantation on Cockspur Island, Georgia. GETTY IMAGES

History says that in many elite homes in the American South in the mid-19th century, ceiling-mounted fans manipulated by enslaved people were a major part of the architecture of dining rooms. The fans, known as punkahs, were usually handmade.

Ropes and pulleys were used to make the punkahs move back and forth, producing a breeze that did not only keep plantation owners and their families under it cool during meal times but also kept flies away from their meals. Enslaved men and women who worked the punkahs had to pull at the ropes the entire duration of the meal, which could last hours.

It was stressful. But for slaveowners, having enslaved people operating ceiling mounted and rope driven punkahs was an opportunity to display their wealth and refinements. Both slaveowners and their enslaved workers however benefited from this manual fanning, although differently.

During parties or mealtimes, enslaved workers listened in on the conversations of their owners while powering the fans or punkahs. They get to know about important information such as slaveholders who have intentions of auctioning some of their slaves or what slaveowners planned to do about slaves trying to escape or revolt.

“Even though they were consigned to labor at the fans, enslaved workers likely used their proximity to elite whites to learn “genteel” codes of behavior, while gleaning information about the plantation world and beyond,” scholar Dana E. Byrd writes.

Being privy to elite conversations also enabled enslaved workers to engage with local and national current events for their own and their communities’ benefits, Byrd adds.

The Punkah Project by Byrd describes more than 30 examples of the fans, some being a triangular board covered with wallpaper showing European colonnades. The fans, which were used to celebrate the “noble” history of the Old South following the end of slavery, are today not only cited in documents but seen in historic house museums and private homes across the South.

Following the Civil War, some freed slaves recorded what they went through powering the punkahs. In Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, “Up From Slavery,” he wrote: “When I had grown a sufficient size, I was required to go to the Big House at meal-times to fan the flies from the table by means of a large set of paper fans operated by a pulley.”

Washington wrote that he learned a lot in the 1860s by listening in on conversations about topics of freedom and war while he was a child enslaved in Virginia and working the punkah cords. Other freed slaves like Neal Upson said they were beaten if they made a mistake while operating the fans.

By the early 20th century, scholars had started writing about the punkahs after plantations became house museums. But many of the scholars did not make any reference to slavery while mentioning the punkahs. Some even made it seem as if the large ceiling fans were never operated by humans.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 11, 2022


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