In the mid 19th century, slaves throughout the American South pulled at ropes and chains nonstop during summer mealtimes, to make plantation dining rooms bearable in beastly humid heat. The slaves would swing wooden panels or fringed fabric rectangles that were mounted on the dining room ceilings. The arduous labor created breezes and flicked insects away from the food and the guests’ flesh. The fans were called punkahs—the same name was applied to their counterparts in India, which servants waved above British colonists.
For American slaveholders, assigning people (usually boys and men dressed in brown and red livery) to work the punkah cords during parties was a way to flaunt wealth. Dana E. Byrd, a Bowdoin College scholar who has studied plantation life, said that the public display “would have undoubtedly been regarded as an extravagant use of labor.” She also notes that there were some benefits to the work. The fanners could listen to party conversations, which sometimes revealed useful or important news, about owners who might soon auction their enslaved families, abolitionists growing active in the region, and slaves managing to revolt or escape.
Dr. Byrd’s website, The Punkah Project, describes about 40 examples of the fans that have been mentioned in documents or surfaced at institutions, homes, auction houses, hotels, and events spaces. The website maps their locations, from Connecticut to Florida. They can be as humble as an unpainted plank, at Kent Plantation House in Alexandria, Louisiana, and as intricately patterned as a triangular board covered with wallpaper depicting European colonnades, at Tallwood plantation near Charlottesville, Virginia.
Many of them, including a scrollwork mahogany slab at Melrosemansion in Natchez, Mississippi, seem to have been designed to look particularly weighty, so that visitors understood the effort required of the operators. Dr. Byrd occasionally learns about a previously unknown example; a rough wooden triangle is set on the dining room ceiling of Kleinpeter House in Baton Rouge, a newly restored structure built in 1820 for Alsatian-American farmers.
At least one famous antebellum homeowner, Thomas Jefferson, did tinker around with concepts for equipment that would have spared his workers from punkah duty. Around 1804, he filled a notebook page with proposed ideas for gears and pendulums that could power a ceiling fan in the dining room at Monticello. He predicted that it would “run an hour” before it required rewinding.