Anyone who has visited Virginia recently knows that summer brings brutal heat and humidity. How did Mount Vernon’s eighteenth-century residents keep cool on those sweltering August days–without air conditioning? Opening windows, doors, and the cupola on top of the Mansion helped keep air circulating throughout the house. But when this wasn’t enough, an ingenious fan chair allowed George Washington and his secretaries to create their own breeze without missing a beat.
Washington purchased a fan chair in 1787 while in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. This multitasking furniture form had been invented in 1786 by John Cram, a Philadelphia instrument maker, for the artist Charles Willson Peale. Cram developed a mechanism in which the sitter pressed a foot treadle that moved a fan suspended above the Windsor-style chair.
Peale was thrilled with the invention, hoping it would be “useful to the studious and others that are obliged to sit at their employments…to keep them cool.” The fan provided relief from the heat, as well as the flies and other insects that could easily enter the house through open screen-less windows.
Washington sent his fan chair back to Mount Vernon and installed it in his study, probably for the convenience of the private secretaries he hired to organize his military and private papers. The current whereabouts of Washington’s chair are unknown, but this version likely resembles the one he purchased. Take a tour of the Mansion to see this fan chair in Washington’s study, along with many of his other favorite gadgets.
Jessie MacLeod, Assistant Curator
Purchase, 1982 [M-2902]