Prior to the 1970's ceiling fans were rarely seen in most homes in the United States.
Today, everyone has ceiling fans in their home. Chances are you have several - maybe even some outside. I just counted ours, and there are five in the house, two on porches, and two in Mark's Studio, making a whopping nine ceiling fans that we own. They are so cheap today, they hardly cost more than an ordinary light fixture. It is hard to believe that at one time, they were considered somewhat unusual in the home, if not a bit antiquated.
(By the way, if you put a ceiling fan on your porch, make sure it is rated for outdoor use. As a friend of mine discovered the hard way, an indoor fan will droop like a wilted flower, over time, if mounted on an outdoor porch).
You may have seen a lot of old movies, like Key Largo, or Casablanca, or Night of the Iguana, where the camera zooms down on a scene from the slowly revolving blades of a ceiling fan. Two ceiling fan companies are even named after two of these movies! Back then, the ceiling fan set the tone of the movie - that it was set in some place with ungodly tropical heat, and not in the good-old United States of Central Heating!
Back in the 1950's and 1960's the only thing on your ceiling might be a centrally located ceiling light, which provided the worst sort of lighting in your home. These usually had glass globes, or later on, wavy glass with little starbursts in it (mid-century modern). The bulk of America lived in the Northeast, and few people needed or had central air conditioning. We all had an oil- or gas-fired forced air furnace, though, and ceiling fans were some "old fashioned" accessory about as esoteric and scary-looking as antique dental equipment.
That changed in the 1970's.
The "energy crises" drove up fuel and electric bills. A surprising number of power plants in the US were oil fired and thus even electricity was expensive. People bought wood stoves to heat their houses and it became a bit of a fad. There were even enthusiast magazines for wood stoves, and it became a bit of a hobby at the time. And one "accessory" for the wood stove was the ceiling fan. A ceiling fan would circulate the heat from the wood stove throughout the room and hopefully throughout the house.
They were ungodly expensive back then - in the hundreds of dollars, when a hundred dollars was worth what $500 would be today. The old line ceiling fan companies like Hunter had huge, heavy, hand-wound motors that would rotate a fan very slowly with no noise whatsoever. But over time, cheaper fans (from China, of course) using "vacuum cleaner motors" brought the prices down to where they are today - under $100 in many cases, which would be like $25 back in the 1970's.
They were featured on "This Old House" and before long, everyone was installing them in their homes. "Makes a great Christmas Gift" like that shower massage wand from Water-Pik you gave Dad last year. And before long, in new construction, it was expected that you would have ceiling fans, not just in the living room, but the bedrooms as well - maybe even the kitchen. We've kind of gone ceiling fan crazy in the United States. Like I said, I have nine of 'em, and that probably isn't that unusual.
What made me think about this was that since those days, ceiling fans are the norm, not the exception, and whole generations have been raised expecting to see ceiling fans in every room - and thinking of this as a norm and not some oddity or luxury item. What is "normal" to us changes over time, and often these new norms - normative cues - slip in right under the radar without us noticing it. Before long, we accept these things as background noise.
Are ceiling fans useful? Well, I guess they help circulate air, and thus keep you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, by preventing air from stagnating near the ceiling. In a way they remind me of these circulation pumps that people put in aquariums to keep the water flowing. I am sure that if we were kidnapped by aliens and displayed in some celestial zoo, they would put a ceiling fan in our exhibit chamber. "They need this to circulate their air - they breathe it!" the aliens would say.
They circulate the air and collect dust. Twice a year, we reverse the direction of the fans - blowing downward in the summer, upward in the winter. But before doing that, you have to wipe them down with a damp cloth, as they are covered with dust, which is mostly your old dead skin cells. Yea, gross, I know. The only thing grosser than that is living in a house with a hundred pounds of your dead skin laying about in layers. Time to clean the fish tank.
Are they a good value? Again, the are so cheap today as to be nearly disposable. Three of the fans that the previous owner put in the house were used in Mark's studio and replaced with nicer looking fans. Even those cost maybe $200 apiece or so. And they seem to last nearly forever, if properly treated.
If you ever decide to move a ceiling fan, take it apart first. I've seen people try to sell ceiling fans in garage sales that they took down in one piece. Usually they break a blade or two, and a broken ceiling is worth nothing. Yes, you might find a blade or irons at the local home improvement store, but likely they won't fit, and likely they will cost more than a new fan would. Take the blades off first, put the screws in a ziplock bag, and put the whole thing in a box. If there is a lamp assembly attached, remove the glass globes and wrap them in paper.
It is like IKEA furniture - if you try to move a piece of IKEA furniture in one piece, half the time the damn barrel nuts pull out. If you can disassemble it, put all the fasteners in one bag (and you did save the instructions, right?) it might actually outlast the move.
Like I said, if treated properly, these things seem to last a long time. I have yet to see a ceiling fan wear out - even a cheap one. Maybe they go out of style or people want something better, but break? Not unless you whack it with a broom handle!