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    

Antique General Electric Fan 1902 Pancake Fan Vintage Ge Brass Blade Fan CageVintage Victor Rotating Fan By Western Electric -brass BaldesAntique Emerson Trojan Table/desk Fan Beautifully RestoredAntique 1919-1922 Emerson Brass 6 Blade, 12 Inch, 3 Speed Fan. Type 27666Ge Pancake Fan Antique Ge General Electric Vintage Fan 12 Inch Oscillating Brass Three SpeedVintage Antique 12 Inch Electric Fan Westinghouse 3 Speed Oscillating Works!Old Vintage Roto-beam Industrial Cage Floor Fan Air Circulator Motor Service Retro Mid-century Modern Vtg Vornado Table FanEmerson Fan 1510 Fluted Base 1906 Beautiful Older RestorationAntique Emerson 12" Brass Blade & Cage "6 Kidney" Electric Fan Model 14666Art Deco Wall / Desk Fan - 10" Aircraft Chronmaster 1000 Works Vintage 1930'sAntique/ Vintage General Electric Ge Fan/ 6 Blade Bmy/ Rare!Revised Ge General Electric 16" Brass Blade 6 Blade Antique Electric FanAntique Emerson Brass Blade Oscillating Floor Stand FanAntique Menominee 8" FanVintage/antique Ge Electric Oscillating Fan. Works Well!Retro Deco Vornado Vfan Modern Version Electric Fan1916 Ge General Electric 16" Fan Uncommon 34021 Brass Blade & Cage RestoredVintage Mw 11" Metal Cage Pedestal Floor Fan Mid Century Industrial Age Art DecoNear Mint!! Working Gorgeous Orig Antique Westinghouse Whirlwind Fan SpringfieldAntique Ge 12" Vortalex Oscillating Pedestal Fan Vintage Floor StandVintage Ge 6" Electric Fan Brass BladesRare Vintage Hard To Find 1920 S Dayton Non-oscillating 32 Volt 9" All Brass FanVintage Restored Westinghouse Oscillating Fan 16 Inch Model 16-paR&m Robbins & Meyers 9 In Brass Blade Antique Electric Fan - Runs & OscillatesVintage Jr. Vornado Model B Fan Working Two Speed Runs Well Needs Restore Vintage Pastel Pink Westinghouse 12" Electric Metal Fan - 517726-a - Works1919 Ge 78777 General Electric 12" Fan 3 Speed 6 Wing 2 Star Restored6 In. Ge Series F Antique Fan - Working ConditionAntique Brass Blade Ge 6" Fan- 4 Blade G Series 6" Fan, Minty Powerhouse!Vintage Polar Cub #p1840 Small Electric Fan - Working!!Rare Antique U.s. Postal #5674 Robbins & Myers Oscillating Electric Fan LargeVintage Art Deco Zero 8" Electric Fan 1250r Very Good Condition Runs Red BlackAntique Early Electric Fan Plug Light Lamp Fixture PartsVintage Victor Luminaire Electric Fan Switch Cover Vintage Vornado Fan Model B38c1-1 Works Great No Reserve, 3 Speeds Antique 12" Hunter 4 Blade Oscillating 3 Speed Fan Working Early P2095327x840 Antique Vintage Ge General Electric Non Osculating Fan 8 Inch Steal BladeAntique Ge 5kh43ab198b 16" Tank FanVintage Eskimo 12 Inch Oscillating Wall Mount Or Desk Fan Vintage 1906 General Electric 9" 2 Speed Oscillating Fan Ge 1332180 Antique Ge General Electric Grey Curved Post Electric Fan VintageRestored Antique Emerson Oscillating Electric Desk Fan W/brass BladesVintage General Electric Ge Black 2 Speed Oscillating 12" Fan 49x929 AntiqueAntique Vintage Emerson Electric 4 Blade 16 Inch Oscillating Fan Model 79648-saVintage Westinghouse Green Circle Fan 2159lj Circular Vintage Metal Oscillating Electric Fan-mounted On Wood-wall?-jadite Green,9"cageF. W. Woolworth Co. 16-inch 3-speed Oscillating Desk FanDeco Electric Fan Brass Cage Ge General Electric 16" Bmy SolidVintage Ge Cage Fan N/brass Blades Steampunk Industrial Age FanVintage Eskimo Cast Iron Table Top, Wall, Oscillating Fan, Parts-repairCinni 12" Metal Blades 3 Speed Desktop Electric FanAntique Emerson Brass Blade Fan Type 24645Robbins & Myers Breeze-all Floor Fan - Vintage - Works Great!Vintage Viking 4 Blade Caged Oscillating Table Fan 14" Mid Century Vintage Hunter Electric Desk / Floor FanVintage 1950s Diehl B12f16 Hassock Floor Fan Blonde Oak Side Table Nice Shape!Vintage Westinghouse Brass Blade + Gage Fan Model # 241842Vintage Vornado 32ct-1 Twin Convertable Window Fan