This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend a taping of Maryland Public Television’s “Chesapeake Collectibles.”  MPT invited local historical societies to meet-n-greet with the people bringing in artifacts for appraisal; we got to see many a fabulous object stroll by on its way to potential televised fame. In a few instances, one of us was moved to run over to the owner and ask questions. Partway through the day I spotted a familiar set of not-quite-tennis-racket-shaped blades in the crowd, and I dashed over to ask excitedly, “Is that a fly fan?”

Fortunately the owner knew what it was – and also fortunately, I was right – otherwise an awkward conversation might have ensued. Instead I got to see a friend of one of our more seemingly idiosyncratic artifacts, the [New and] Improved 20th Century Fly Fan.

This mechanical device was intended to sit on a table, gently rotating its blades and thus deterring flies. The height of the blades is adjustable, and they can be set parallel to the table or, as our photos show, at an angle “when space is limited” (this is “an important advantage peculiar to this Fan only”). The stamped-tin-covered iron base is sturdy, but has a nice small footprint for sitting amidst the dishes on the dining table. When fully extended, the fan’s ‘wingspan’ is a full four feet. It works like a clock; the example I spotted at MPT had a separate winding key, although ours advertises itself as “Complete In Itself” (the key is built into the gear shaft). Wind it up, and the fabric-covered blades spin slowly in the opposite direction.

Our fly fan still has most of its paper label on the bottom (see photo above). It was made by the National Enameling and Stamping Company of Baltimore, sometime after 1893 (the most recent patent date). Donated by Charles Jacobs, it probably came from either his or his wife’s family, used in Gaithersburg, Browningsville, Germantown or similar.

I haven’t been able to ascertain how common these devices were. A few examples pop up on internet auction sites, once you know what to look for, but the fly fan isn’t one of those ‘iconic’ pieces that you can find in any antique shop. If you hadn’t seen one in action when growing up, you might never understand its purpose (if it weren’t for the handy paper label, of course). Ours seemed pleased to be brought out for photography this morning. I gave the winding key a few tentative turns (curator’s privilege); nothing happened, so I gave it a bit of a nudge and, well, “sprang to life” might be pushing it, but it went into (slow) action and then kept right on going for rather a long time, as if determined to be of use once more.

Video Alert!  To watch the fan do its stuff, go to our Facebook page. I crave your pardon for the poor videography, but at least the first 30 seconds show our fly fan in action. And indeed, there were no flies.