The Artifact of the Month for Augus 2012 was a Lake Breeze Fan, also known as the “Wonder Fan,” manufactured in 1919 by the Lake Breeze Motor Company of Chicago. This is a fan powered not by electricity, but by a hot-air engine fueled by alcohol, kerosene or gasoline.
As we make our way through the dog days of summer, it is difficult to imagine a summer without air-conditioning. But, of course, before there was electricity, there was no air-conditioning, and folks had different solutions to beat the heat. The Lake Breeze fan was created for those hot summer days when people wanted to cool down.
A hot-air engine powers the fan. There is a kerosene lamp in the base of the fan and the hot air from the lit wick rises and pushes through a turbine that then turns a shaft of the fan blades.
At around the same time as this fan was manufactured, the use of electricity in homes began to grow. The electric fan became instantly popular, and this non-electric fan soon faded into obscurity.
The electric fan won out over the non-electric fan, for perhaps obvious reasons. The hot open flame created by the kerosene/alcohol lamps was dangerous and a fire hazard. The cooling effect was somewhat offset by the heat generated by the burner. The proliferation of electric power shortly after its introduction limited the appeal of this technology.
The Lake Breeze Motor Company tried marketing the fans to under-developed countries and to parts of the United States that did not have electricity near the turn of the century. However, eventually due to lack of sales, the fans were no longer produced.
Unique and unusual, early 20th century appliances that are no longer manufactured are considered highly collectible. This type of non-electric fan is rare and coveted by collectors. In 2003, one of these fans was featured on the PBS television show, “Antiques Roadshow.” The show features an appraiser who not only tells the history of the artifact, but also gives an idea of its value if it went to auction. According to “Antiques Roadshow,” this fan originally sold in 1919 for the price of $22.50, and in today’s market, one of these fans would probably sell for around $2,000.
Standing approximately 42 inches tall with a wrought iron base and a brass cage surrounding the brass blades, the fan has a diameter of approximately 23 inches. Industrial design in the early 20th century was not as concerned with safety as we are now and early fans (both non-electric and electric) were not designed with the user in mind. Most fans were far from finger safe, as the cage openings were often so big (as seen with the museum example) that one could put an entire hand or arm through it. Many children had hands and fingers severely injured by these early fans.
In 1983, Margaret Ruth, a life-long Macomb resident, donated the fan to the museum. Born 1916 in Macomb, Ruth was the daughter of George and Esther Huston. A 1934 graduate of Macomb High School, Ruth worked for the city of Macomb for 27 years and served as the City Clerk from 1952 to 1963. She was an active community member involved in many local civic organizations. She passed away in 2004 at the age of 88. When she donated the fan to the museum in 1983, Margaret Ruth shared her memories about the fan:
“This fan was discovered disassembled in a haymow in a barn close to Macomb, and was obtained by my father, George L. Huston. The story goes that the fan was used by a traveling dentist who used it to cool his uncomfortable patients as he plied his trade, since it was easy to operate and required only some alcohol for the tank.”
“After the fan was assembled and found to be in excellent working order, it became my father’s pride and joy, and with his passing in 1969, it was clear to me I could not sell it to anyone. I am proud to donate this to the Western Illinois [University] Museum and know it would please my Dad very much to know others are enjoying the fan as much as he did.”
From an essay by Heather Munro.