Blown away

I was intrigued. An antique fan museum. How many different fans have there been? How extensive could their collection be?

As I walked through the doors of the Antique Fan Museum, my jar dropped. Clearly I was very ignorant of fans. The museum houses hundreds of fans from the 1870s on, many on loan from collectors who have lovingly restored them to their original condition.

I typically think of fans as being a modern invention, that is, from the era of electricity. But there were also fans powered by water, kerosene, and batteries—batteries that are roughly ten inches in height with chemicals that had to be mixed by hand.

The museum contains a large collection of paper hand fans, the kind that I think of when I think of the deep South during hot humid days at the height of summer. The fans are illustrated with images of people (actors, actresses, pinups?) and of course, are the perfect advertising medium for politicians, groups (Shriners), companies (Coke, Pepsi, US Tires), and public service announcements (advising walkers and drivers on street safety).

Among all the fans, companies that exist today are well represented: Emerson, GE, Westinghouse, Hunter. There are scores of others that I didn’t recognize: Zephyr, Gilbert, ArcticAire, Jandus. The museum mainly has American-made fans but also contains other fans, like ones made in France, Canada, and Germany.

The blades of the fans are usually made of metal, commonly brass, but others are made of leather, rubber, and ribbons (e.g., the very rare late 1940’s Ribbonaire). Most are the standard desktop form but others either model themselves on radios (yes, they look like radios of the time) or try to blend in with the furniture with decorative wooden encasements. I personally like the standard desktop ones with spider web designed grill.

Some, as the fan restorer who was visiting explained, are coin operated. The look of blank comprehension on my face must have prompted him to explain: coin-operated fans were used hotels and motels. Ah!

Fans for a tabletop or to grace a room aren’t the only type of fans on display. The museum showcases a slew of different ones, used in situations that I never realized fans were needed:

  • banker fans (which push air horizontally to leave papers on a desk undisturbed)
  • handheld fans for ladies at the opera
  • a fan from a Soviet tank (!)
  • fans for car dashboards
  • a fan used in a 1950 battleship (placed in a porthole)
  • fans for bank vaults (to move the air in the vault and to provide air to breathe if you accidentally got locked in)
  • early model ceiling fans
  • fans used in train cars
  • fans attached to lamps
  • a fan powered by Singer sewing machine

Fanimation’s Antique Fan Museum left me a bit overwhelmed…and appreciative of the roles that fans play—especially before the advent of air conditioning.


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