The earliest ceiling fans appeared in the early 1860s and 1870s, in the United States. At that time, they were not electrified by any form of electric motor. Instead, a stream of running water was implemented, in conjunction with a turbine, to drive a system of belts which would turn the blades of two-blade fan units. These systems could supply several fan units, and so became popular in stores, restaurants, and offices. Some of these systems still survive today, and can be seen in parts of the southern United States where they first proved useful.
The electrically powered ceiling fan was invented in 1882 by Philip Diehl; he had engineered the electric motor implemented in the first Singer sewing machines, and in 1882 adapted that motor for use in a ceiling-mounted fan. Each "Diehl Electric Fan" included its own self-contained motor unit, with no need for belt drive.
Diehl was almost right away up against fierce competition due to the commercial success of the ceiling fan. He continued to make improvements to his creation; the "Diehl Electrolier", was a light kit fitted to the ceiling fan to combine both functions in one unit. By World War I most ceiling fans were made with four blades instead of the first two, which made fans quieter and allowed them to circulate more air.
By the 1920s ceiling fans had become a regular thing in the United States, and had started to take hold internationally. From the Great Depression of the 1930s until the 1950s ceiling fans faded out of fashion in the U.S., almost falling into total disuse in the U.S.; those which remained were considered items of nostalgia.
Meanwhile, they had become very in demand in other countries, particularly those with hot climates but without the infrastructure or resources for high-energy-consuming and complex air conditioning equipment. In the 1960s some East Asian developers started exporting ceiling fans to the United States. They caught on slowly at first, but found great success during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, since ceiling fans consume far less energy than air conditioning models.
Due to this renewed commercial success, many American manufacturers also began to produce, or significantly increase production of, ceiling fans. The Casablanca Fan Company was started in 1974. Other American producers of the time included the Hunter Fan Co. (which was then a division of Robbins & Myers, Inc), FASCO (F. A. Smith Co.), Emerson Electric, and Lasko; the latter two were often branded as Sears-Roebuck.
During the rest of the 1970s, and through to the late 1980s, ceiling fans remained in demand in the United States. Many small American producers, most of them rather short-lived, started developing ceiling fans. Throughout the 1980s the balance of sales between American-made ceiling fans and those imported from Asian makers changed dramatically. Even the most regular U.S-made fans sold at $100 to $250, while the most expensive imported fans rarely exceeded $85.
In the United States, due to the ever-reducing cost of air conditioning ceiling fan sales once again started to drop from the early to mid 1990s. With the reduction in sales came a reduction in research and development by U.S. makers, and features were dropped to reduce costs. Once-standard features, such as solid wood blades, built-in variable-speed dials, high-quality stator/rotor ("stack") motors, and die-cast steel manufacturing, were largely replaced by cheap, standardized parts.
Since 2000 important inroads have been made by companies offering top price ceiling fans with more decorative value. In 2001, Washington Post writer Patricia Dane Rogers said, "Like so many other mundane household objects, these old standbys are going high-style and high-tech." Newer companies such as Minka, Fanimation, The Modern Fan Co., The Period Arts Fan Co. and Monte Carlo brought well-built fans with distinctive style to the market.