Many products designed to make life and work easier emerged from the (American) Industrial Revolution. Among them was the lowly vacuum cleaner.
Today, vacuum cleaners may be found in nearly every household and, indeed, are generally taken for granted. However, it was not all that long ago when homemakers had to clean their homes with brushes and cloths, which usually stirred up more dust than it cleaned. Many households observed the annual ritual of spring cleaning: The furniture was moved aside; then the carpets and rugs were taken outside and hung on the clothes line to be given a good beating. Various metal and wooden rug beaters were used for the unpleasant and exhausting task.
The first hand-pumped vacuum cleaner in the United States was the Whirlwind, a wood and canvas contraption which appeared at the hands of a Chicago inventer in 1865. Today, only two known examples of the Whirlwind are extant one in the Hoover Historical Center in Canton, Ohio and the other in a private collection. Very little is known about the Whirlwind and most of the inventors inventory was lost in the Great Chicago Fire.
Thus, hand-pumped or otherwise manually operated vacuum cleaners have been around since the mid-1800s. Every imaginable variety was conceived of, from zoomorphic monsters to machines housed in exquisite cabinetry that could double as coffee tables, sidebars and cocktail bars! The method of operation of the model pictured below is quite evident, and apparently designed with family togetherness in mind as two people husband and wife worked together to operate this sweeper!
Note: All images in this gallery that have a thin border around them are interactive click on the image to see a larger and higher-resolution version.
Special thanks to Tommie Jšnsson of Spray for permission to use this image, as well as the images found in the Electrolux Model V Exhibit.)
Whos working the hardest, here?!
Another curious by-product of the Industrial Revolution was a new-found obsession with hygiene and cleanliness, helped along in no small part by scary advertising and medical establishment propaganda about the dire dangers of household filth. Almost overnight, disinfectants, household cleaners, and expensive cleaning apparatus appeared. Coincidentally, along with the appearance of the more sanitary indoor flushing toilet. And the vacuum cleaner certainly played a big part in this sanitary-bullying. Ads for vacuum cleaners showed such things as children playing in mounds of dirt, admonishing the homemakers that unless they were using the Brand-X vacuum sweeper, that was exactly what their children were doing playing in filth and dirt and endangering their lives and health.
(This is not to say that hygiene and sanitation are not important! The point is that this obsession with disinfecting the household appeared suddenly around the turn of the century a fairly recent phenomenon and the new fetish for cleanliness was quickly hit on by manufacturers of household cleaning supplies and equipment.)
The first electric suction sweeper appeared in 1907.
(More about this electric machine can be found in the Hoover exhibit.) Apparently, several electricity-powered vaccum cleaners appeared at about the same time, just past the turn of the 20th century. Many of these early electric machines were simply earlier types of hand-pumped pneumatic machines to which electric motors were affixed to operate the leather bellows inside.
Most of the major vacuum cleaner manufacturers of today Electrolux, Royal, Kirby, Eureka, Hoover, etc. can be traced back to at least the early 1920s and in some cases even earlier than that.
(Please do note that all dates and details in this museum pertain to the American vacuum cleaner only unless noted otherwise. I am not as well-versed on the machines of other countries; however, as far as I have been able to research, the vaccum cleaner was originally an American invention and subsequently spread to other nations thereafter.)
D i r t
You may be wondering what household dirt is composed of.
You really dont wanna know, but since you asked:
First, its about 75-80 percent dead human skin cells. We mortals slough off millions of skin cells daily and this shedded material makes up the disproportionate portion of vacuum cleaner dirt. The rest of it is hair, animal dander, dust mites (another whole scary thing to think about); and the smallest portions being pollen, dirt, sand and earth tracked or blown in from outdoors. Bet you thought it was the other way around...
Many door-to-door salesmen sold many beater-bar-type vacuum cleaners by a very simple, yet very disgusting demonstration: They would ask the nice lady of the house to pull back the bed covers and linens. The vacuum cleaner would be used on the bare mattress. The salesman would open the dirt bag and dump a small mound of greyish-white powder onto the mattress with the somber announcement that the blissful couple had been sleeping and, er, well, you know ... doing other stuff atop all that dead skin. Many a vacuum cleaner was sold on the spot!
And speaking of sneaky vacuum cleaner salesman tricks (and there were many), here's a classic gimmick that many people [still] fall for: The salesman, ever concerned for the good health and sound hygiene of his prospective customers, would ask the housewife to carefully vacuum a portion of her carpet with her old [and he would emphasize the word old] vacuum cleaner.
He would then make a sly comment along the lines of, Ill bet you think your carpet is clean now, Mrs. Jones, dont you. After all, you just used YOUR vacuum cleaner on it. Of course she would agree, not wanting to concede the possibility that her present sweeper was inferior.
Then he would grandly shove her old cleaner aside and set-to vacuuming the same spot with his sparkling new cleaner. Hed open the dirt-bag and dump the contents onto the rug that she had just cleaned commenting about how much dirt her old vacuum had left behind.
This is a terrific sales technique; and one that sold many a new cleaner! Only thing is, the same process would also work in reverse: If the salesman vacuumed first with the machine he was demonstrating, and the housewife then used hers afterward, she, too, would find dirt in her machine. Its the simple physics of the fact that one pass of vacuuming will not remove all the dirt from a carpet, no matter how carefully the chore is carried out. Some dirt will always remain behind!