The American Philosophical Society was founded in Philadelphia in 1743 by Ben Franklin to “promote useful knowledge.” Before the U.S. Patent Office was formed, one of the functions of the APS was as a repository for plans for inventions and devises for improving the human condition.
In 1786, Charles Wilson Peale, artist, soldier, scientist and member of the APS, sent a letter to Benjamin Rush with a diagram and description of a chair made for him by John Cram, an instrument maker. Peale’s letter, read to the Society in August 1786, described the chair as, “useful to the studious and others that are obliged to sit at their employment…to keep them cool…” The superstructure was wood and the fan was pasteboard.
The secretary’s notes for the meeting refer to John Cram as “an ingenious mechanic.” Not much is known about John Cram, other than he was an instrument maker. He was listed in a 1785 city directory with a shop on Lombard Street between Second and Third.
There are at least two fan chairs in existence, one at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia estate, and one in the New Haven Museum in Connecticut.
The notes for the Mount Vernon chair state Washington purchased a fan chair in 1787 while he was in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. The whereabouts of that chair are unknown, “but this version likely resembles the original.” The chair on display is dated 1786-1800 and the edge of the fan is decorated with a trailing vine.
The second chair, in the collection of the New Haven Museum, was owned by Dr. Eneas Munson. It is dated 1786-1790. The fan on Dr. Munson’s chair was painted to depict an eagle’s wing, “kidney-shaped fan, painted black with painted gold feathers.”
The Mount Vernon Collection has a page for their fan chair and you can find it here. Under the photo of the chair is a link to a PDF with a full description of the chair’s construction and the fan mechanism (the website does not allow a direct link to the PDF).
p.s. Semper fi.