The Awkward Infancy of the Vacuum Cleaner

Have you ever wished you had another set of arms for your spring cleaning?

Woman holding a vacuum cleaner with one hand

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“If men did the housework,” a 1918 advertisement mused, “there would be a Bissell’s Carpet Sweeper in every home.” The sweeper — still a staple in many homes today — wasn’t as powerful a dust picker-upper as the nascent vacuum cleaner, but the developments around getting harmful debris up and out of carpet and rugs were already transforming everyday work for women. In the early days of suction, vacuuming carpet was a job for two; now, it needn’t require anyone at all.

Ad for a vacuum cleaner
Bissell’s, December 7, 1918

In the 19th century, a list of chores for a woman to complete around the house was long and arduous. As proof, Catherine Beecher’s 1841 book, A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, offered 37 chapters of women’s responsibilities in the home. Beecher publicly proclaimed the importance of women’s housework, which she intended to strip of its “menial and disgraceful” reputation. She believed keeping house should be regarded with the same importance as a man’s labor because of its impact on the health of the family. Chapter 24 of her Treatise covers the best practices for the care of parlors: “Sweep carpets as seldom as possible, as it wears them out. To shake them often, is good economy … When carpets are taken up, they should be hung on a line, or laid on long grass, and whipped, first on one side, and then on the other, with pliant whips.”

The introduction of some sort of machine to accomplish this task would have been a long-awaited and welcome relief. According to Carroll Gantz in The Vacuum Cleaner: A History, the first known invention of a sweeper that used suction was an 1860 patent granted to Daniel Hess of West Union, Iowa: “The nature of my invention consists in drawing fine dust and dirt through the machine by means of a draft of air, forcing the same into water or its equivalent for the purpose of destroying it substantially.” His concept included a bellows, similar to the kind used to stoke a fire, but it was never taken to market.

Diagram of a carpet sweeper
Daniel Hess, 1860

The latter half of the 19th century saw a flood of new inventions in the U.S., and carpet sweeping devices followed the trend, even if most of the patents were non-starters. Ives McGaffey’s 1869 machine resembled modern upright models, but with a hand crank and pulley that powered a fan at the base. Another, the Agan sweeper of 1875, was the first to combine manual suction with rotating brushes. It’s difficult to imagine operating these early vacuums proficiently, let alone with the sort of ease that would justify their purchase. Models of this period seemed to be designed for humans with four arms instead of two.

Patent diagram
Ives McGaffey, 1869

The most popular version of a manual vacuum cleaner (or pneumatic cleaner, as they were often called) was the Baby Daisy, a big wooden contraption from England that was manufactured starting in 1890. Advertisements for the machine often featured a woman pumping the bellows rod with one arm and holding the suction tube with the other, but this would have been impractical. The Baby Daisy was more realistically operated by two people: one for the bellows and one for sweeping.

After the turn of the century, portable electric vacuum cleaners slowly made their way into newly powered homes. Janitor-inventor James Murray Spangler sold his 1908 invention — credited as the first motorized, portable vacuum cleaner — to William Henry Hoover after Hoover’s wife purchased a model from Spangler to clean her house. Hoover started manufacturing vacuum cleaners and selling them door-to-door so their effectiveness could be demonstrated to potential buyers.

Richmond Suction Cleaner, January 27, 1910 and Eureka, September 19, 1925
Richmond Suction Cleaner, January 27, 1910 and Eureka, September 19, 1925 (Click to Enlarge)

Several companies followed suit, like Eureka, Electric Vacuum Cleaner Co., and Richmond Suction Cleaners, but Hoover came to dominate the market for decades. The first advertisement for an electric suction cleaner in this magazine appeared in 1910, and it promised to deliver the device for only one dollar (about 27 dollars in 2019). Vacuum companies made appeals to women that they could save time and avoid the “drudgery” of sweeping their carpet. While the onslaught of rickety experimental inventions of the past had been a growing pain of the industrial age, these new vacuums were the real deal.

After World War II, the vacuum cleaner became a staple in every home, and trusted brands like Kirby, Hoover, and Bissell were prepared to sell these must-have appliances to newly prosperous households. Decades of innovation yielded vacuum cleaners that were bagless, cordless, and more powerful than ever. Finally, in 2002, a company called iRobot released an autonomous vacuum cleaner that could zip around the house without any help at all. Gone are the stressors of pliant whips and Baby Daisy. These days, you can name your vacuum cleaner any name you’d like, and it will even answer back when you call it.

Illustration of a woman using a vacuum cleaner on a chair
Graybar Cleanerette, April 5, 1930

 

Ad ad for a Singer vacuum cleaner
Singer, April 20, 1957

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Comments

  1. Love this feature on the history of vacuum cleaners, Nicholas, and the fact you came up with idea to do it in the first place! It’s fascinating, and very well written. This is yet another example of how technology already becoming more accelerated before and during the Civil War, got so much more so afterward in the late 19th century with the industrial revolution.

    It’s clear the vacuum cleaner was already closing in how modern it would be for the remainder of the 20th century and into the 21st, very early in the 20th; essentially being further refined from that point forward. Baglesss, cordless, more powerful they would become, but the match itself was clearly lit in the 1860’s.

    The first portable vacuum cleaners coming into common use by 1908 is quite interesting. I love the ads you selected here, including the 1930 Graybar Cleanerette. The Saturday Evening Post was redesigned around 1899/1900 to propel itself to unheard of heights along with all of the other new-for-the-first-time products advertised on its pages every week. The perfect marriage at exactly the right time.

    I never knew Singer made vacuum cleaners before, just the sewing machines. As a little boy (as young as 3) I loved “helping” my mom vacuum; mainly putting my hand over the end to feel the suction. It had a reverse air blow feature I liked blowing in my face and using to help put flocking on the Christmas tree around 1961 using the air hose like a fireman, but not doing a good job. Still, better to do that than putting my fingers in a lamp without the bulb not realizing the turn switch was “on” and getting my first electric shock! (We won’t talk about my fascination with electric cords, plugs and wall sockets.)

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