Postcards help preserve an Old World folk art: fan-carving

Postcards are being used to help preserve an almost lost folk art, that of fan-carving. The most culturally significant fan-carved item is the fan bird.

The fan bird represents the dove of peace. It is a three-dimensional design made from one piece of wood. Fan-carving is an Old World folk art that came to America with Scandinavian immigrants.

To the Europeans, the fan bird is known by many names:  Holy Spirit, bird of inspiration, dove of peace, Christmas bird, Easter bird, chip dove, cuckoo, splint bird, etc. Traditionally, the fan bird is hung in the home by a string so it may move freely with air currents. It seems to some alive and symbolizes protection, health, and happiness for the family.

A fan-carved dove was found in many Scandinavian churches in the 17th century. It hung in the pulpit directly over the minister’s head, hence the name pulpit bird.

By the 1900s, the fan bird seemed to be everywhere throughout Scandinavia and Europe. In fact, two distinguished ethnographers proclaimed it a cultural phenomenon.

However, as time passed, fewer local artisans made fan birds. In time, the pulpit bird was even replaced by a solid wooden dove. There are few fan birds being made in Europe and Scandinavia today. In some countries they can only be found in museums or archival documents.

This Old World folk art along with its rich and meaningful symbolism almost became lost, but it is now enjoying a renaissance due to the fan-carvers of today. It will live on!


Legend of the Fan Bird

During the Medieval Era, families lived in one-room log houses that were covered with clay inside and out. There was just one window, covered with a dried animal stomach, during the winter and a small smoky stone fireplace.

One family in northern Russia lived in such a house with a young boy who was very ill. He lay on his bed where he was covered with furs. People came from neighboring villages to try to help him regain his health, but all efforts were in vain.

It was the end of winter, and his father was sitting by the fireplace making baskets. Tired of lying in a stuffy house,  the ill boy asked, “Dad, is summer coming soon?”

His father replied, “Soon, son, very soon.  Just a little more and summer will be here.”

Then his father got an idea. He thought, “I will make a bird from this piece of wood. I will make it to look like a real bird with two wings and a tail.  Maybe my son will think summer has come and the birds have returned.  That would make him very happy.”

The father said, “I will make summer for you.”

He made a bird and hung it from the ceiling near the fireplace where his son could see it. The draft of the hot air streams from the fire caused the bird to spin. Its wings began to move and suddenly it became alive.

The son was filled with joy and his health improved. The people from the neighboring villages returned to ask how the boy was healed. When they heard the story about the bird, they asked the father to make a bird for their home to safeguard and protect their family.

Thus, the bird assumed magical powers and became known as the “Holy Ghost,” safekeeper of children and symbol of family happiness.


Sally and David Nye are world renowned for their tireless efforts in researching and preserving the Old World folk art of fan-carving. 

Their research has taken them across Europe and Scandinavia. The Nyes soon found themselves in the unique position of teaching the Europeans their heritage about the fan bird along with its legends and customs.

Sally and David have recorded this symbolism and history in their books: Fan-Carving and …more FAN-CARVING. For more information visit

It is their hope that the postcards shown here will bring attention to fan-carving and help preserve it. To further this preservation, the Nyes would like to give a set of these postcards to anyone wishing to add them to their postcard collection. Write to Sally and David Nye, 2160 66th St., Fennville, MI 49408 or e-mail

Click here to discuss this story and more in the message boards.