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Vacuuming: A Lost Art That Should Stay That Way
by Marjorie Dorfman

Did you ever wonder where your vacuum cleaner came from and why it does what it does? Well, wonder no more and read on for some information, a bit of history and a few smiles, too!

I vacuum, therefore I am. . . .
The Dorfman Archives (sort of)

Whenever I think about vacuum cleaners, the I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy becomes a door to door saleswoman always come to mind. If you recall, (and even if you don’t), she throws a pile of yucky dirt onto some woman’s carpet to show how effectively her brand of vacuum can clean. Unfortunately, when she plugs the machine into the wall, she discovers that the power is off and she will have to clean up the mess she created by hand! Although this may be an extreme situation, I often ponder the repercussions of postponing one of my least favorite household chores and when it comes to vacuuming my house, I agree with Scarlet O’Hara that tomorrow most certainly is another day!

What is this thing called household dirt anyway? You probably don’t want to know, but here it is anyway. The majority of vacuum cleaner dirt (seventy-five to eighty percent) is composed of dead human skin cells! Yes, my friends, we mortals shed millions of skin cells daily. The remaining percentage includes hair, animal dander, dust mites, pollen, sand, dirt and earth tracked or blown in from outdoors. Whether you choose to eliminate this bad stuff straight up and down, criss cross, vertically and then horizontally or the other way around, vacuuming remains a pain in the butt. (I’d use other terminology, but my mother would be upset.) Forget about what you heard about cleanliness and godliness. It may all be true, but that doesn’t mean that vacuuming should be sanctified. After all, did the saints ever vacuum? I doubt it.

The art of vacuuming goes back a long way, although not as far back as dirt. Before the vacuum cleaner was invented, people had to carry their carpets outdoors and beat them to get rid of the dust, probably getting as much of it on themselves as off the carpet in question. The first major improvement in this area came with the invention of a cleaner that blew compressed air onto a dusty carpet. It seemed more like an old parlor trick as the compressed air blew the dust up and about where a robed assistant, who probably worked for one of PT Barnum’s former sword swallowers, stood with a box ready to catch it!

After The Industrial Revolution, there emerged a new obsession with hygiene and cleanliness, propagated by scary advertising about the dire dangers of household filth. Almost overnight, disinfectants, household cleaners and expensive cleaning machines flooded the markets. Ads for vacuum cleaners displayed children playing in mounds of dirt, admonishing housewives that unless they used the Brand X vacuum cleaner, that’s exactly what they were doing. The vacuum embodied two other obsessions as well; the concept of labor saving and domestic efficiency and the status of being the first on the block to own one of those new things, whatever the hell they were.

The mass production of the house broom was the initial spark that started the evolution of the vacuum cleaner. At the same time the broom companies emerged, numerous competitors began to produce the carpet sweeper, giving it subliminal, anti-Ralph-Nader monikers like Lady’s Friend, Welcome and Boston. The first hand-pumped vacuum cleaner was The Whirlwind which dates back to a patent issued in 1869 to a man named Ives McGaffrey. Only two known machines are in existence today, one at the Hoover Historical Center in Canton, Ohio and the other in a private collection. Very little is known about the Whirlwind as most of the inventor’s inventory was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. This machine stood alone in the war against dirt until 1901 when its modern design was born in England, the brainchild of civil engineer, Hubert Cecil Booth.

The story is that Booth once fell face down on the floor with a handkerchief in his mouth. He sucked hard and discovered that the hanky had trapped all of the dirt (not to mention other unmentionables). Don’t ask how, but somehow this triggered his idea for a vacuum cleaner, which took the form of a large, horse-drawn unit that was parked outside the building to be cleaned with long hoses that fed through windows. It made such a noise while it was operating that it frightened passing carriage horses whose owners subsequently sued him. Undaunted neither by handkerchiefs nor lawsuits, his machine came to the rescue at the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII when carpets under the twin thrones in Westminster Abbey were found to be filthy. The King was so impressed with Booth’s contraption that he ordered cleaners for Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.

Several electric-powered vacuum cleaners reared their dusty heads about the turn of the twentieth century. Many of these early machines were simply hand-pumped machines to which electric motors were affixed to operate a leather bellows inside. Most of the major manufacturers of today, such as Electrolux, Royal, Kirby, Hoover and Eureka can be traced back to these early years. Chapman and Skinner in San Francisco invented the first portable electric vacuum in 1905. It weighed ninety-two pounds and used a fan 18 inches in diameter to produce the suction. A woman needed her man to move the heavy vacuum around, giving new meaning to the term domstic togetherness. Because of its size and cumbersome nature, it did not sell well.

In 1907 a janitor in a Canton, Ohio department store, James Murray Spangler, deduced that the carpet sweeper he was using was the source of his incessant sneezing. He tinkered with an old fan motor, which he attached to a soapbox and stapled to a broom handle. A pillowcase served as a dust collector. In 1908 he improved this basic model, received a patent and formed the Electric Suction Sweeper Company. One of the first buyers was a cousin, whose husband, William Hoover, later became the president (of the Hoover Company, not the United States). Subsequent improvements made the machine resemble a bagpipe attached to a cake box, but they worked. Sluggish sales were given a kick by Hoover’s ten day free home trial, and eventually there was a Hoover vacuum cleaner in nearly every home (not to be confused with a chicken in every pot and whoever said that).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch in Melville and Anna Bissell’s crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan the dust was so thick that it threatened their health and inspired the creation of a new and different carpet sweeper. Neighbors working out of their homes put together the inner workings and cases of the sweeper, securing tufts of hog bristles, inserting them into rollers and trimming them with scissors. Mr. Bissell himself then assembled all the parts in a strange little room above the store. The Bissell Carpet sweeper remains unchanged today (except that the room used for assembly is a little bit bigger).

The vacuum cleaner is one of the greatest household aids ever invented. It’s right up there with sliced bread and the flushable toilet. Its speed and efficiency allows more time for leisure and less for cleaning, which is an option I will always pick when forced to chose between the two. I no longer have to shake my scatter rugs out the window or beat my carpets and rugs in the backyard every spring (not that I ever did, you understand). Now I can lay back and look at my vacuum and decide when I want it to work for me. I don’t know when the next time will be. I have to go for a root canal. I feel that’s more fun than vacuuming. Would you say that I have a problem?

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Copyright 2002