Collecting Mania: Vintage Electric Fans
It's hard to imagine surviving the dog days of summer without the aid of an oscillating fan, but just a century ago these warm-weather necessities were considered the latest in modern technology and a luxury item beyond the reach of most Americans. During the early decades of the 20th century, electric fans were only used either in commercial establishments or in well-to-do households. Early in the 1920s, however, industrial advances allowed steel to be mass-produced in different shapes, bringing fan prices down, thereby allowing more homeowners to afford them.
Attempts to create a cooling, artificial breeze date back hundreds of years. The first recorded mechanical fan was the punkah fan used in the Middle East in the 16th century. It consisted of a canvas-covered frame that was suspended from the ceiling. Servants known as punkah wallahs pulled a rope connected to the frame to move the fan back and forth.
As technology progressed, fans followed suit. Windup fans - similar to windup clocks - were popular in the 1700s. The Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s ushered in belt-driven fans powered by factory waterwheels. Heat-convection fans fueled by alcohol, oil, or kerosene were common around the turn of the 20th century. But most of these fans faded away as the use of electricity spread.
The first commercially marketed electric fan was introduced in 1882 by the American firm Crocker & Curtis. In the years that followed, manufacturers such as Emerson, General Electric, Westinghouse, and Robbins & Myers competed to create the lightest fan (early fans sometimes weighed as much as 40 pounds), as well as the most economical operation and the strongest, quietest airflow.
Developing aesthetically pleasing designs was another area manufacturers explored. During the 1920s and early 1930s most fans were black and fairly plain, but once companies mastered quiet operation, they began to experiment with design and color. The first unique departure came in 1933, when Emerson designed the Silver Swan, the first Art Deco fan. After that, fans became decorative accessories for the home.
Other companies followed Emerson's lead and marketed Deco-inspired fans, characterized by fluid curves and clean, uncluttered lines. But the Second World War interrupted Deco design, as companies devoted time and materials to the war effort. After the war and continuing into the 1950s, most companies produced simple fans updated with bright colors such as aquamarine and salmon.
The advent of central air-conditioning in the 1960s brought an end to the electric fan's golden age. Although fans are still produced, the range of styles is far less extensive than it once was. The variety and the quality of the old fans are what lure collectors today.
To find these vintage pieces today, scour flea markets, garage sales, antiques shops, and online auctions. Models from the 1920s and early 1930s are the most common and range in price from $20 to $75. Pristine Art Deco fans command a higher price, about $50 to $300, with examples like the Silver Swan fetching as much as $400 to $500. Colorful fans from the 1950s sell for $20 to $40.
In addition to a fan's condition, size, and age, factors that affect price include the number of blades (a four-blade design is the most common; five or six are more rare) and the materials from which they are made (brass blades are the most desirable). Pieces in their original boxes are also highly prized as are ones with working motors.