Fans in the Media

The following appeared in the Wall Street Journal, December 13, 1996

John Duennenberg, a San Antonio firefighter, was intrigued by the vintage desk-top fans he stumbled upon at an estate sale earlier this year. Now he's hooked.

"When you crank up a fan made in 1909, people are amazed," he says. "I took one to the fire station to show the guys, and now they're out looking for old fans. It's gotten to be like a fetish."

A fetish shared, apparently, by a growing number of collectors. Vintage fans from the early 1900s through the 1940s are becoming a home fashion accessory du jour. And modern versions made to look like the old models, especially reproductions made by the Indian manufacturer called Cinni, have been hot sellers for retailers even as colder weather blows in. Indeed, the fans, which retail for up to $450 apiece, aren't necessarily used to cool off; they're simply supposed to look cool.

"I wouldn't consider buying a cheap, plastic fan," says Laurel Harrington, and aspiring actress in San Francisco, who paid $129 for her antique-looking Cinni fan last spring. In fact, "I hadn't considered getting a fan until I saw the Cinni, which is a beautiful, classic design."

The fans are becoming something of a pop-culture icon. They play a supporting role in NBC's police drama, "Homicide: Live on the Streets." A Cinni refitted with an open, old-style cage around the blades recently landed a major role in a TV commercial for Clorox Co.'s Formula 409 cleaner. And an old fan is featured prominently in a bedroom-furnishings display in the Eddie Bauer catalog - though the fan itself isn't sold by the retailer.

Rochelle Schiffman, director of marketing communications for Xerox Corp. says she even sought out a vintage six-bladed fan that is featured in recent print ads for the company's home-office products. "That fan is beautiful," says Ms. Schiffman. "I actually tried to buy it, but the supplier wouldn't let it go."

At Pottery Barn stores, "The Cinni has sold beyond our expectations," says Ken Wingard, a divisional merchandising director with the Williams-Sonoma Inc. unit. Although the Cinni fans have been sold for decades overseas, they weren't widely available in the U.S. before this year, he says. Some Pottery Barn stores ran out of the Cinni fans before midsummer.

But the vintage fans' new popularity has alienated some longtime aficionados, who have seen prices rise as people snap up the fans at flea markets and auctions.

"Now fans are popping up everywhere," says collector Jude LeBlanc, an architect and associate professor at Harvard University. "And I find it a little annoying that popularity has put so many out of reach."

Jonathan Welsh