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]

Vintage Machinery

Vintage Machinery

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

Antique Pancake Motor General Electric Fan,brass Blade Pat.1901 Type Ak Form DRare Antique Western Electric Fan 8”/candlestick American Telephone Base Bb/bcAntique Vintage 1930s General Electric Ge Quiet Blade Fan With Original Box Antique 10" Graybar Ge General Electric 55 X 164 G Deco Fan Working Antique R&m Robbins And Myers Art Deco Peacock Fan Works As IsAntique 8 Inch Blade Robbins Myers The Standard Ac Electric Fan Vintage ProjectVtg Antique Gilbert Oscillating Electric Fan Runs 11.5" Blade Repainted Art DecoAntique 2 Speed Art Deco Gilbert Oscillating Table Fan Bullet Industrial CleanVintage Antique1920s Ge 10 Inch Oscillating Single Speed Fan (restored) Perfect!Antique Ge Whiz 9" Brass Blade Oscillating General Electric Fan For RestorationOrigial Antique Menominee Type 109 3 Speed Flat Motor Brass Blade Fan Braid CordEmerson # 71666 12" 3 Speed Oscillating 6 Brass Blade FanEmerson Vintage 6 Blade Brass Fan Oscillating 3 Speed Nice! No Reserve!Antique Ge General Electric Cat. 75425 Ao Form R5 Oscillating Fan No. 1084113 Ge General Electric Whiz Brass Blades Antique Fan Restored "look"Emerson Electric Fan 16" Antique Vintage Original Works! Oscillating 73648 AkVintage Emerson Jr. Table Fan--------all Original, Runs Well!Vintage Westinghouse Model 12la5a Oscillating 12" Fan - Part No. 35968Vintage 1950's Westinghouse Riviera Style Table/floor Fan Cat No.1020 L@@kVintage Westinghouse Electric Fan Does Not WorkNice Old Largest Vornado #12d1 3 Speed,stationary Fan Only Needs Cosmetics Good!Vintage Ilg FansAntique Ge 2 Star 12" Brass Blade & Brass Cage Fan 75423 Star R5 ( No Reserve )Vintage 1940s Ge General Electric Vortalex Fm16v1 16" 3 Spd Oscillating Desk FanVintage 1930's Emerson Electric Fan. 8" Oscillating Model 2240 B V Jandus-adams Bagnall Antique Electric Fan Brass Blades And Cage Dated 08/1899Vintage Ge General Electric 12" Vortalex Oscillating Fan, Fm 12v1, See VideoVintage Braun Hl1c Desk Fan 2-speed Dieter Rams Reinhold Rare Grey Color WorksVintage Westinghouse Air Circulating Fan Alternating Current Motor #164849 BrassVintage Lakewood Fan Model Hv-12 Chrome Steel 3 Speed Adj. Table Top RetroEmerson 8" Northwind 444a 2-speed Non-oscillating Desk Fan Brass-colored BladesVintage " Westinghouse Electric " Whirlwind Table FanVintage Wood Mathes Cooler Model 543 Electric Fan - 4 SpeedRare Portable And Modular 1950s Vornado Fan! Virtually Mint Condition!!!Vtg Emerson 27645 'the Parker Fan Blade'Vintage Zephyr Aircooler Metal FanAntique Brass & Black Ge Oscillating FanVintage Retro Berns Air King 3 Speed Hassock Stool Floor Fan ~ WorksMid-century 12" Vornado Small Size Fan 2 Speed - Model 16c2-1 - Runs!Vintage Victor Silver Breeze Table Top Fan - Working!Vintage Ge 3 Speed 4 Blade Brass 16" Fan 1901General Electric Oscillating Fan 10" X 14" 272899-1Vintage Cast Iron Table Fan Parts Or Repair Faultless 60 Cyc 5 Amp ElectricAntique Robbins & Myers 16" Brass Blade Fan Model 3854 Part/rebuild Not WorkingNorthwind Type 44a Electric Fan For Restoration Antique Koldair Vintage Fan - Green - Working - Cat. No. K8 - 110 Vac 50-60 CyVintage Westinghouse Boxed Fan TurquoiseVintage Eskimo Osilating Fan Model 10103Vtg. Handyfan Electric Desk Fan 8" BladesVintage Vanco FanAntique Vintage Westinghouse Electric Fan Brass 17" Cage Cast Iron Base Works!!16" Emerson Antique Vintage Six Brass Wing Oscillating Electric Fan BladeVintage 4 Blade Electric Eskimo Fan Single Speed Working Bersted 1100rRare Original Antique 1900 Ge General Electric Pancake Fan Front Motor HousingVintage General Electric One Speed FanVintage Mid Century Westinghouse Oscilating 1 Speed Electric Fan - Working NiceVintage Antique General Electric Ge Decorative Ceiling FanOriginal 12" Six Wing Emerson Antique Vintage Electric Fan Blade Hub1991? Galaxy By Lasko Electric Metal Box 20 In. 3 Speed Fan Was Unopened1920's Ge General Electric 9" Whiz Brass Blade Single-speed Oscillating Fan