If you are fascinated by fans of all kinds, book your ticket to Indiana.
To the casual eye, what goes on in the parking lot of Fanimation’s headquarters could look like a covert arms deal. For example, a man recently phoned company founder and CEO Tom Frampton and wouldn’t go into much detail about the item he was bringing over in his car’s trunk, but he was eager for Frampton to take a look.
This happens a lot. Cars pull up to Fanimation with garage sale “finds” for Frampton to evaluate; countless photos of ceiling, table, and pedestal fans are emailed to him; and phone inquiries happen regularly. One of those calls came from a producer on the popular History Channel TV show American Pickers. When an antique fan discovered in Georgia stumped the TV show’s experts, their search led to one of the country’s foremost authorities on antique fans: avid collector Tom Frampton. It was a historical find, alright. Frampton had seen something similar years ago as a ceiling fan, but not as a pedestal model. “I did some research and eventually found the patent drawings from 1930,” he recalls. “It turns out there are only three of these units that still exist today.”
In June, Frampton flew out to Iowa, where American Pickers is filmed, and appeared on the TV episode to explain the history of the unique fan, which he had traced to the Safety Car Company. The person who had brought the fan to American Pickers had paid $500 for it. Intrigued by the rare model, Frampton ended up purchasing the antique from him for $2,700 and estimates that when he is finished restoring the fan to its former glory, it could be worth up to $10,000.
Frampton doesn’t keep such finds to himself; he shares them with the world at the museum of the Antique Fan Collectors Association (AFCA), which resides at Fanimation’s headquarters in Zionsville, Indiana.
Established in 1997, the fan museum holds a collection of 450+ vintage fans dating back to the early 1880s that are loaned to the museum by members of the AFCA. The non-profit group has roughly 500 members, 20 of which (including Frampton) have 20+ years of fan experience.
When the AFCA museum needed to be relocated from the Vornado Fan Co.’s building in Wichita, Kansas, Frampton offered to make room for the museum at his company’s facility. In addition to the fans, there are also hundreds of antique advertising-style hand fans and other memorabilia.
It took nearly one year for the museum’s relocation to be complete, but since it was finished in 2009, the AFCA museum has become a local and statewide tourist attraction. Admission is free and each guest leaves with a Fanimation memento. Among the regular visitors are school children by the busload, tour groups of senior citizens, and people who love antiques. “We’ll even get hardcore collectors in here, who will spend at least two hours or more. You almost have to peel them out,” Frampton quips.
What type of fans do people find inside? “We have a Bordello pedestal fan from the 1920s,” Frampton remarks. “It’s about 8.5 feet high and fire engine red. It was from an actual bordello in Arizona and was donated to the museum by the state.”
Frampton’s son, Nathan, who is president of Fanimation, shares his father’s enthusiasm. “I find the water-powered fans to be interesting,” he states. Before you wonder whether water and electricity were ever a good mix, understand this: the first ceiling fans pre-date electricity, appearing in the U.S. in the early 1860s and 1870s and were powered by running water. Other vintage fans that appeal to Nathan are hide-away/furniture fans and the type of ventilation fans that were used in bank vaults.
For many visitors to the fan museum, it’s a walk down memory lane. “People will see the hassock fans and say, ‘Oh, I remember my aunt having that when I was growing up,’” Nathan comments. Many of the fans on display are from the 1920s and 1930s, and one – from a dentist’s office in England – dates back to 1902. Another interesting fan in the museum hails from the estate of the late actor Jack Palance, who was a renowned art and antiques collector.
While vacationing in Nairobi, Africa several years ago, Tom visited a local railroad museum, which had a few discarded sleeper/restaurant cars from England on a seldom-used back lot. He discovered three vintage wall fans inside that were so unique, he wanted them for the fan museum. It took nearly two years of museum-to-museum paperwork and negotiations, but those fans are now on display in Indiana.
“Part of the fun of collecting is the hunt,” Tom confesses. “It’s [about] paying $8 at a garage sale and finding a fan that’s worth [thousands].” Day after day, there are plenty of yard sale veterans and people who have cleaned out their relatives’ attics who travel to Fanimation’s headquarters to donate fans to the museum or have them evaluated. Most of the time, the “finds” aren’t that old or valuable, but every once in a while, there’s a diamond in the rough – and the discovery of a unique fan to share with an appreciative public makes this father and son team’s day.