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Cooling Off the Old Fashioned Way

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Specialty Junior Water Fan

Conjure up a picture of an old-time summer evening -- there will be a pitcher of lemonade, fireflies outside the window, baseball on the radio and the hum of an electric fan.

Fans . . they were and still can be lifesavers on a hot day. But fans today just don't have that certain panache of the fans from yesterday. Plastic doesn't do it! And the beauty of an old fan is probably at least one of the reasons why they are currently collected and sought after.

At a recent flea market I stumbled on a dealer with a booth full of beautifully restored fans. These have the original motors, but with new wiring that is identical to the original.

Enthusiasts Robin and John DeVere are new into the fan world, but had a treasure trove of beautiful fans. Although antique and vintage fans can cost up to thousands of dollars, most of the fans they were showing were affordable and well under $500. These fans were beautiful to look at and run, but it's amazing how dangerous the fans are with nothing to stop little fingers from exploring the shiny blades.

The DeVere's put me in touch with expert collector Terry Fisher, and he explained that there were many different types of fans made, including electric fans, fans which were powered by wet cell batteries, water fans, hot air fans and wind-up fans.

Water-run fans are a big favorite of collectors, they don't have wires and motors to burn out! The water fans have an impeller inside the housing and water pressure turns it, but they were so popular that too much water was being used. Folks would just dump the water back onto the streets and this caused cities to eventually clamp down and ban them.

At the turn of the century electric fans were manufactured to run on Direct Current and Alternating Current. The United States had not adopted a national electrical standard, so cities, and even areas within cities, provided AC or DC current from 20 volts to 250 volts. This current was also supplied in 25 cycles, 33 cycles, 133 cycles, 50 cycles and 60 cycles. This forced fan manufacturers to provide fans that ran on all these electrical systems. When buying a fan you would had to specify the type of current provided in your area. Eventually fan motors were invented that ran off AC or DC, but these fans would eventually be discontinued because they caused a buzzing sound in a new invention.....the Radio. And into the late 1920's fans did not have the standard two prong plugs on the electrical power cord. The plugs screwed into a light socket because there were no electrical wall outlets. The only sources of electrical power in homes were screw-in light sockets. During this period fan power cords were supplied in 10 to 15 foot lengths.

Looking for a really rare fan? These are the names to know -- Eck, Crocker Wheeler, Jandus with a ball shaped motor, Holtzer Cabot or the Feather Vane Oscillator made by Robbins and Myers. But expect to pay thousands of dollars to own one of these hard to find fans.

As with all antiques and collectibles, an original fan in good condition is worth more than one that has been restored. And doing anything that takes away from the original condition will detract from the value. Fan collectors have been known to spend weeks with a buffing cloth cleaning an old fan and buffing it back to the original condition rather than repaint.

Restored fans are usually purchased more for decorative use, while the true collector is looking for something a little rougher. Collectors like to get hands on and work on bringing the fan back to its original form.

Want to buy a vintage fan?

  • Make sure that if it has a slide switch that it operates on all the speeds it is supposed to.
  • Start it up and listen for undue rattling or a noise that would tell if a bearing is bad.
  • Fans should whisper, except for the DC armature fan, in those cases you should hear brushes clicking.
  • If it is an oscillating fan, make sure there are no cracks in the housing. Some of the fan parts and oscillator gear boxes were made of pot metal. These are often cracked, could leak oil, or fail completely.
Ready to start collecting?
Interested in becoming a fan collector? Check out the fan collector site, the American Fan Collectors Association. These folks are more than just interested, they bring new meaning to the word FAN-atics, in a nice way of course. The excellent site is full of resources for both collectors and would-be collectors. There is a complete listing of restoration tips, parts suppliers and techniques. The association also has a very active bulletin board, just post a question in The Forum and someone will be glad to help you out. The AFCA also has numerous links to sites on the Internet dedicated to parts, materials and know-how.

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Dateline: 06/12/02

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