When we think of the early distribution of electricity in North America in the 1880s, we tend to picture homes of the well-to-do suddenly being illuminated at night by Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulbs. That’s vision is accurate enough, but just below “light” at the top of the new electricity-consumer’s wish list was “air,” which was delivered via electric motors that spun pie-slice-shaped brass blades, stirring and circulating the air within what had been stagnant rooms.

Some of the first fans were made by companies run by Charles Crocker, who owned partnerships in Curtis & Crocker and Crocker-Wheeler. These fans were hardly what we’d call “child-safe” today. Their blades, which spun at upwards of 1,600 revolution per minute, were uncaged, while their direct-current, or DC, electrical connections were exposed, producing shocks if touched even when the fans were not running. Later, cages were added around the blades, but this radical step was taken protect the blades, not curious fingers.

Edison, whose Edison Illuminating Company sent power throughout lower Manhattan, was a self-interested proponent of DC, but many of his earliest electrical fans were battery-powered. His Type S batteries came in a heavy wooden box that was more than two-feet long. Inside were four porcelain jars, each of which held the ingredients for a battery. When the power ran out, which for an average Edison fan was after about 125 hours, the customer would have to replace the zinc and copper plates within the jars, as well as each cell’s supply of potash and water.

Competitors to Crocker and Edison manufactured fans that ran on alternating current, or AC, powered by induction motors engineered by Nikola Tesla. Westinghouse was the first company to put Tesla’s motor’s into its fans, which featured four teardrop-shaped, caged blades. Emerson was another early adopter of AC; its blades are distinctive for their irregular kidney shape. And as motors got smaller, thanks mostly to reductions in the size of the wire used inside them, fans got less bulky, with side-view profiles resembling a short stack of pancakes, for which these fans are named.

A cousin to the electric fan was the kerosene fan, which was popular in rural areas where electricity was uncommon. These floor fans stood on wrought-iron bases and featured kerosene engines, some made by Stirling, whose heat rotated the fan’s blades, which in turn generated a cooling breeze. Jost was one manufacturer of kerosene fans, as was Lake Breeze Motor, which also made alcohol-burning desk fans.

By World War I, companies such as Menominee, General Electric, Western Electric, Eck Dynamo & Motor, Robbins & Myers, and Colonial were manufacturing oscillating and stationary electric desk fans. Brass, which was needed for ammunition, was replaced by steel and eventually aluminum, which allowed manufacturers to create lighter blades. While General Electric had pioneered the use of overlapping blades to create a quieter fan, Emerson designer Jane Evans used aluminum for its beauty, creating, in 1932, the Silver Swan, whose rounded, overlapping blades suggested the feathered profiles of a flock of the beautiful birds.

Other electric manufacturers from the middle of the 20th century include Gilbert, which had its own version of Emerson’s Silver Swan; Samson, which made an uncaged fan whose four blades were made of rubber; and Fitzgerald, whose streamline moderne motor housings suggested torpedoes or futuristic space ships.


Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Early Office Museum

Early Office Museum

This site showcases pre-1920 office antiques, including paperweights, writing ink, paper fasteners, seal pressers, … [read review or visit site]

Alloy Artifacts

Alloy Artifacts

A tool collectors’ dream, this site is a deep repository of photos and info on 20th century hand tools and the co… [read review or visit site]

Drainspotting

Drainspotting

Josh and Cam Larios have created this site enabling people to upload and 'tag' photos of historic or artistic manho… [read review or visit site]

A Millers Falls Home Page

A Millers Falls Home Page

Randy Roeder has carved out a niche for himself with his fine website devoted to the history of the Millers Falls C… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Gorgeous Wesco 5310 Emerson Antique Electric Fan W/12" Brass Blades Beautiful 16" Ge "pancake" Antique Electric Brass Blade Fan W/ribbed Base.1901 Ge General Electric Pancake Motor Brass Blade Fan Cast Iron Ribbed Base RunAntique Emerson Brass Fan #12646 Full Rib Base~oscillating~all Org~1910-11 WrksVtg Antique Emerson Fan Type 19646 12" Brass Parker Blades Brass Cage AdjustableVintage Emerson Jr. 9" Brass Blade Electric Fan Fully RestoredAntique 6" Hamilton Beach Electric Executive Desk Fan Circa 1890Vintage Westinghouse 9" 6 Fin Brass Fan Blade & Cage Ge Emerson Pancake General Electric Fan Vintage Metal BladeRare Gilbert 5" Antique Electric Desk Pen And Fan Set. Original.Rare 12" Antique Emerson Pi-241 Brass Bladed Electric FanAntique Emerson Oscillating Fan 73668 Brass 6 Blade Large Motor 16 Inch Nicely Restored 1915 Emerson #21645 9"brass Blade,3speed,oscillating Fan Runs+++12 Inch Brass 4 Blade Fan "the Standard" By Robbins & Myers Vintage Vornado Fan Model B20c1 Original Paint Large Multi SpeedAntique Emerson Fan Oscillating 3 Speed 21646Vintage Electric Fan Deihl Electric Fan #12521 Works & Oscillates On All SpeedsVintage Robbins Myers List #104 Fan, Works Fine!Vintage Ge Model A0 Brass Blade FanVintage General Electric FanVintage Emerson Electric 12" 4 Blade Metal Model 77646Antique Ge 2 Speed Oscillating Restored Vintage Fan Burgendy Paint Gold StripeIndustrial B24c1-1 Vornado 2 Speed Vtg Blue Art Deco Fan Mid Century MetalAntique Emerson Fan 71666Vintage Westinghouse 12" Brass Fan - 4 Blade 3 Speed Vintage Graybar Shedd Electric Company 13" Speed 4 Brass Blade Fan WorksVintage Emerson Electric Fan No. 77648-sg Works Great! Rewired Ready To UseVintage Nos Mid-century Modern Electric Lasko Hassock Ottoman Floor Fan 2162cAnt Westinghouse 12" 4 Blade Fan~brass Cage & Blades~unmolested As Found~restoreEmerson Jr. Oscillator Electric Fan Vintage Antique 8"--single SpeedEskimo Kitchen Fan From 1940's, Spider Web Design, 10" Fan, Runs Good.Vintage Ge Vortalex Electric Oscillating Fan - Fm12v1 - In Working ConditionAntique 3 Speed General Electric Smooth Running Oscillating Fan Galaxy Lasko 12 Inch 3 Speed Hassock Fan Model 2152 With BoxVintage Westinghouse Whirlwind Fan Style 280598 8inch Blade Table FanVintage Antique Emerson Jr. Fan -- Estate Attic FindAntique Vintage Fitzgerald 83101 Star Rite 8" Fan Works Brass Blades Deco BaseBraun Hl-70 White Desk Fan Reinhold Weiss Dieter Rams Design Made In Japan, ExcVtg Sears Hassock Fan Great Working Condition 3 SpeedElectric FanVintage 1926 Electric Fan Westinghouse Oscillating 3 Speed Model # 516860 A Vinatge Limit 32volt Fan - Made In EnglandAntique Diehl Fan Elizabethport N.j. 4 Blades And Works! H-22" Base Across 8''Vtg Antique Whirlwind Westinghouse Small Table Desk Fan No Style 253468 WorkingAntique Ge General Electric Whiz Desk Fan For Parts Or Repair Vintage Emerson Electric FanAntique Electric Fan Vintage 15" Box Fan Works Built Like A Tank!Vintage Air Flight Fan 3 Spd Floor Table Hassock Art Deco Works Maroon & GreyVintage General Electric Vortalex Oscillating Fan 1940's-1950'sVintage Ge 9" General Electric 27x840 Desk Fan Rotary GreenVintage General Electric Ge 16" Vortalex Oscillating Fan, 3 Speeds, F11v163Emerson Electric Antique Vintage FanVintage Mid Century Industrial 8" Window Fan Heavy Duty Motor Gamble-skogmoAll Original Vintage Antique 1931 Ge 27x840 8" Non 0scillating Electric Fan Vintage 3 Speed Eskimo Fan Box Sea Foam Blue On Swivel Stand 15" 141001West Bend * Windsprint *2 Speed Vintage White Abs Plastic Orb * Atomic Fan3 Speed Box Fan Steel Box 22" X 22"Vintage Signal Oscillating Metal 4 Blade FanVintage 1930s Metal Electric Fan Chevron St. Louis Usa Art Deco Needs Power Cord