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]

Old Woodworking Machines

Old Woodworking Machines

This collective website, which started as an online discussion forum, now also includes a large database of manufac… [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

Most watched eBay auctions    

1908 Fort Wayne Electric Works Dragon Fan "wood" Ge General Antique VintageRare Robbins & Myers 12 Inch Feather Vane Oscillating FanAntique Water FanAntique Menominee Electric Manufacturing Company Electric FanAntique Brass Blade Emerson Fan Type #11644 Parts / RestoreVintage 1920s Desktop Electric Bankers Fan Cast Iron & Brass Exc. Working Cond.Ge General Electric Whiz Antique Brass Blades Fan Restored "look" Antique Vintage Ge General Electric 12" Brass Blade Oscillating 3 Speed Desk FanAntique General Electric Ge Coin Op Operated Electric 12" Brass Blade Pay FanDl Parts Antique Emerson 21666 Oscillating Fan 12" Brass Blade Cage & StrutsRetro/vintage Vornado Electric Vari-speed Desk Fan Industrial Modern Model 16-c Antique Victor 12" Oscillating Electric Fan Working * Nice!Western Electric Victor Fan Lollipop Vane Oscillator Brass Robbins Antique WorksEmerson Seagull 10" Oscillating Electric Fan Machine Age Deco Design From 1935Antique 12" Westinghouse Direct Current Brass Blade Two Speed Electric FanVintage Diehl Singer Ribbonaire Bakelite Safety Electric FanOld Antique Emerson Osculating Type 14646 Parker Brass Blade Electric Fan C1906Vintage Antique Ge Whiz Brass Blade Electric Fan #212 Battle Creek SanitariumRare, Beautiful Robbins & Myers 'radio Fan' List No. 6000 Antique Vintage RetroGe 1903 Pancake Fan Form Ab Type BAntique / Vintage Ge " Vortalex " 12" Oscillating 3 Speed Pedestal Floor Fan *nrAntique General Electric Fan 4 Blades Works Perfect Vintage 16" Robbins & Meyers Brass Blade And Cage Table Fan OscillatingVintage 9" Robbins & Meyers Brass Blade Table Fan Oscillating 3 SpeedworksBrass Emerson Antique FanAntique Emerson 10" Oscilator Fan Type 2250 B Excellent Working OriginalVornado Vintage Fan Model 12d1 (very Good Condition)Antique 1915 Ge Fan Brass Blade & CageVintage Antique Ge Smy General Electric Fan, Brass Blade, Pancake, Tank MotorAntique Vintage 1919 Westinghouse 17" Oscillating Electric Cage Fan Model 321347Antique Ge General Electric 49x Oscillating Electric Fan Working * Nice!Solid Brass Cage And Bladed Colonial Rare Antique Fan Antique Westinghouse Fan Six Brass Blades-oscillating-needs Restored No Work!!Antique 9" Ge General Electric Alternating Current Fan Patent 1906 2 SpeedAntique Vintage Westinghouse Electric 4 Blade Oscillating Fan 517723 A Antique 1910's Ge Brass 16" Fan 4 Blade Oscillating, 3 Speed, Original Antique Westinghouse Electric Fan Six Brass Blades-oscillating-needs RestoredVintage Zero Mcgraw-edison 1250r Electric Desk/wall Mount Fan Check DescriptionVintage 52" Hunter White Ceiling Fan Electric Motor Model 23609 25609 WorksVintage Art Deco Green Sterling Four Blade Electric Desk Fan Type Asus 9 879Antique Vintage Westinghouse Electric 4 Blade 3 Speed Fan Works Art Deco BaseBarcol Fan Vintage Art Deco Bakelite 8 Inch 20s 30s Runs Smooth Barber ColmanVintage Steel Dominion Electric Fan 8 Inches Across The FrontExtra Nice 10" Emerson Jr Oscillating Fan Looks And Runs GreatVintage Braun Hl 70 Desk Fan Jet Style Modernist With Holder & Paper Real NiceVintage Emerson Electric Fan 2240-b. 8" Blades. OscillatesAntique Ge 12" Brass Blade Electric Fan Working-3 Speed Oscillating-circa 1927Vintage Art Deco Dominion Electric Fan Cast Iron Base Aluminum Blade 8" DiameterThe Lake Breeze Motor Fan Cage Tag Or Motor Top, OriginalDl Lot 4 Antique 22" Ceiling Fan Blades Westinghouse Electric Wood Cast IronEarly Antique Emerson 27666 Brass FanAntique Electric FansVintage G.e. Oscillating Electric FanAntique Art Deco Vintage Westinghouse Fan For Parts Or Restoration 15 Highneat Vintage Ge Fan Blades 12" Vortalex (aluminum) Hl-70 Braun Desk Fan Reinhold Weiss JVintage 10" Emerson Electric Brass Fan 6250-d 6250dGe 6" Series G Fan Parts Brass Blade,motor,base Good Parts For A Restoration!!!!Nicely Restored 10"1930's Nonoscillating 1spd. Fan Good Looking+runs Super Nice!Vintage Ge Electric Retro Style Oscillating Fan - 13" Tall - For Repair