It took some serious hard sell through the 1910s to convince the American public
Summer is here, and the newspapers are full of advertisements for air conditioners. What you won’t find easily are ads for electric fans. Doesn’t anyone want fans anymore?
Back in the 1980s, every commercial break on Indian TV had a fan ad. “Chahiye hawa jahan, Khaitan hai wahan” is one of the sticky jingles from the time. ‘Orient P-S-P-O’ also comes to mind easily.
America experienced the same fan hard sell decades earlier, in the 1910s. It was a time when power companies were pushing people to get connections (more on that another time), and appliance makers were simultaneously telling them what to do with electricity. The talk was all about living a better, easier, healthier life.
General Electric and Westinghouse were the big brands and both advertised aggressively. Here’s an early Westinghouse ad from July 1912 trying to win over mothers:
“With a Westinghouse electric fan in the nursery, no mother need worry about the children in hot weather. It gives them the fresh air they need; it keeps them cool and connected. Summer fretfulness disappears when the Westinghouse fan begins to run. And when bedtime comes the fan, carried upstairs, quickly brings refreshing sleep.”
Fans were not very expensive, considering that a loaf of bread cost 10 cents even in the war years. Westinghouse prices started at $8.5 for an 8-inch desk fan and went up to $20 for a 16-inch oscillating fan, with claimed running costs of “2 cents a day” for the smallest fan. Buyers were even allowed to pay in installments.
It was not enough to tell people what they could do with a fan in summer — to spur sales, year-round uses had to be found, and two University of Missouri engineering students, Homer N Tickle and Richard Tickle, calculated that using a fan with a home furnace could save 1.8 cents a day in winter.
The University Missourian of January 27, 1915 published this report quoting Percy W Gumaer, instructor in the electrical engineering department of the University:
“Would you like to save 1.8 cents a day on your coal bill and, at the same time, make use of your electric fan?”
Gumaer said, by blowing air from the fan onto the radiator “the temperature of the rooms could be increased easily to a comfortable degree within a short time.” And placed in the intake of a furnace, “the electric fan will not only cause the rooms to heat quickly but will actually increase the efficiency of the furnace.”
As for savings, “With coal at $4 a ton, the amount saved per day in the cost of coal is 6.4 cents. With electricity at $0.06 per kilowatt-hour, the cost per day of running the fan is 4.6 cents. The net saving, therefore, is 1.8 cents a day.”
Maybe fan sales really took off by the mid-1910s, because various companies were always alerting readers about coming shortages. A 1917 ad by Northern Indiana Gas and Electric Company said: “There is a scarcity in the fan market and to be assured of the comfort order one today.”
A General Electric ad from 1920 also says: “The demand for electric fans this year is going to be greater than the supply. You must be quick to get your General Electric fan.”
An electric fan was the answer to every summer woe. It was necessary for rest and productivity:
“The soothing invigorating breezes of an electric fan near your desk will greatly increase your business efficiency. At home, it will make life vastly more pleasant during the hot summer months. Supply your office and home with electric fans early — right now.”
“Comfort depends on keeping cool: If you prepare now with an electric fan, you can laugh at the fagging heat of the long summer. An electric fan will keep you delightfully comfortable on the hottest days and nights. It may be used either indoors or out. Why not invest now in an electric fan — the inexpensive summer convenience.”
“Sleep for the kiddies is essential for health and happiness. Sleep, some of these torrid, sultry nights, is almost impossible without the cool breeze of an electric fan. (It is just as necessary that grown-ups should rest well too. You need every ounce of strength you can store up to carry you through these hot, summer days.)”
Here’s another ad issued by Albuquerque Gas & Electric Company in May 1919:
“You are going to have to buy an electric fan later. Why not buy it now? It will mean greater efficiency in your office, for no one works at his best when the air is oppressive and uncomfortable. Cool off. Fortify yourself against heat with one of our electric fans. It is the only way to keep your energy and vigour up to normal… Put an electric fan in your home and office without delay. You’re suffering unnecessary discomfort without one.”
By 1920, fans were available in various types, such as ventilating fans, business fans (with larger blades than home fans), ceiling fans, residence fans (9-inch blades) and quieter six-blade fans for cinemas, etc.
Here’s G-E’s pitch from its 1920 ad: “With the turn of an electric switch all the breeze you want — when you want it — where you want it. G-E electric fans are practical, inexpensive and cost but a trifle to operate. A G-E fan brings trade to the store, higher efficiency to the office and pleasure to your home.”