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Object Spotlight: Fan Chair

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]


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7 Responses to “Object Spotlight: Fan Chair”

  1. Linda Says:

    The fan chairs looks to be quite fascinating. Unfortunately the directional controls block the view of the referenced foot pedal that drives the fan mechanism. That’s unfortunate.

  2. Mount Vernon Contributor Says:

    Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. Here is a direct link to a higher resolution photo of the chair:

  3. Jan Herscher Says:

    Hi, my comment has nothing to do with the fan chair. I wanted to bring to light, in case you haven’t read this fascinating book: An Autobiography of G.W. (as told to Edith Ellis Scribe). A rare piece of channeled history! The spirit of G.W. made contact with Edith in 1944 requesting that she take down his autobiography! It came out in 2005 by CMED Publishing Co.., Oak Park, Illinois

    G.W. states in the book that his intention in wanting to communicate his bio was that he felt that he had denied Americans any insight into his emotional being while alive.

    It is well worth reading even for us skeptics!
    He talks about many misstatements have been made about him. He wanted to correct some of

  4. Mount Vernon Contributor Says:

    Hi Jan, thanks for the reading recommendation. We actually have several copies of that particular book in our library here at Mount Vernon.

  5. Peter Badger Says:

    I believe that Benjamin Franklin also had a fan chair, but I do not know when he bought it. General Washington might have seen Dr. Franklin’s while he was taking tea with him in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787.

  6. Elaine White Says:

    Interesting article on the archaeological finds—I wouldn’t have recognized them as toys! Not to split hairs, but Jacky and Patsy Custis were not both six years old (which would make them twins) when the Washingtons married. I believe Jacky was five (possibly six) and Patsy was three.

  7. Susan Martin Says:

    Is the fan chair adjustable for height?

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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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