The Oft-Forgotten Antique Fan

Antique fans are front and center at the American Fan Collectors Museum

Visitors to the museum look over some of the more than 350 vintage fans on display.

Visitors to the museum, Bruce and Delores Whiteman of Winfield, Kan., look over some of the more than 350 vintage fans on display.

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Michael Coup's collection always causes a stir. The Wichita, Kan., man has piled up one of the largest collections of antique fans in the country. He's such a fanatic that he even bought the rights to a defunct fan, the Vornado, and put it back into production.

At his fan factory in Andover, near Wichita, Michael converted the large lobby into the American Fan Collectors Museum so other fan collectors could showcase their "finds."

"This is the world's most complete collection of mechanical fans," Michael says. The fans are arranged in a timeline to represent all major fan designs, beginning with the first modern electric fan built by Dr. S.S. Wheeler in 1882.

"The invention of the fan is a major factor in world history," Michael says. "It may sound like an exaggeration, but without fans, we would have no air conditioning, forced air heat, cars, trucks, planes and refrigerators." To make his point, he indicates three 1890s fans sporting familiar company names: Emerson, Westinghouse and General Electric.

"Out of something as mundane as the fan, these companies took off," he says.

The first motors were practically handmade. "They weren't big enough to grind grain or do anything industrial, except maybe work a sewing machine," Michael says. "The fan was the most obvious application; just stick a blade on it."

Some of the earliest fans are quite crude, such as the bipolar fan with two exposed wrapped coils. Early fans didn't have cages or guards, and tales abound of abbreviated cat tails and snarled hair.

Included in the museum are several rare fans, including some early 1900s models powered by alcohol and water. Heat from a kerosene or alcohol lamp heated air in a piston, which turned a crankshaft with a fan blade attached.

The ceiling gyrofans of the 1890s used a combination of table fan motors mounted on a ceiling fan pipe. When switched on, both fan motors ran, as well as rotated 360 degrees.

"Those really moved some air," Michael notes. These fans were made by companies such as Diehl, Jandus, General Electric and Emerson.

From about 1903 to 1910, companies mainly experimented with different oscillating mechanisms, which allowed the fan to move in different directions and blow air around the room, instead of being stationary. Most fans moved side to side, but some moved in circles or rotated 360 degrees.

The vane and the lollipop, two different styles of oscillating fans, are displayed at the museum. The vane had a brass flap in front of the cage, which forced the fan from side to side. The lollipop had a wire rod with a brass disc on top, which resembled a lollipop, inside the cage. When the fan ran, the brass disc would force the cage to the other side.

During the Victorian era, ornate fans were the rage. One 1898 Emerson desk fan in the museum is decorated with partridges and flowers. Desk fans usually had 10-inch blades, and didn't blow as strongly as table fans.

After 1915, most fans sported a rear transmission gearbox. Some fans even doubled as furniture, such as the Art Deco circular fan table from the 1930s, and the hassock fan from the 1940s.

Michael says that older visitors to the museum especially remember the hotel fans.

"People needed a cooling device in those old brick hotels, yet the owner couldn't afford to run the fans," he says. A nickel bought an hour's worth of breeze. Even better, the fan held 10 nickels so the hotel guest could get a good, uninterrupted night's sleep. These early fans were made from brass or cast iron.

Michael, a former Boeing engineer and physics professor, grew up with fans and was especially fascinated with the designs of the old Vornado fan. In the 1970s, he began buying and restoring them. He soon discovered that he could sell them as fast as he could restore them. Eventually, he bought the production rights.

Michael also was instrumental in forming the American Fan Collectors Association, which boasts more than 400 members nationwide. They meet annually for FanFair to share their knowledge and interest in the hobby. FC

For more information: The Antique Fan Museum moved to Zionsville, Ind., in July 2009. It is located at 10983 Bennett Parkway, Zionville, IN 46077; (317) 733-4113. Museum hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You can call to make an appointment. Online at www.fanimation.com/museum.

Marti Attoun writes for several national magazines from her home in Joplin, Mo.