These Things Really Suck!

Wooden floors, linoleum or carpets ( rugs or wall-to-wall) — what's the thing they all have in common?

  • One walks on them
  • They hide the floorboards or plywood underneath them
  • They can be decorative or hideous or anywhere in-between
  • They accumulate dust and dirt

This article concerns itself with the last item on the list. Until just about the turn of the twentieth century, brooms and dust-mops were the implements of choice for cleaning hard floors. Carpets had to be lugged outside, hung on a clothesline, and beaten (fancy whacking away in a cloud of dust, and in those days one couldn't just jump in the shower to shed the filth).

The conundrum of cleaning wall-to-wall carpeting was solved by a "carpet sweeper." These devices had rollers which spun cylinders with protruding brushes propelling dust and dirt into a compartment in the machine. They were dirty, hard work, and had to be emptied often. One of the most famous makers of carpet sweepers is the Bissell Corporation of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They started in the late nineteenth century and to this day manufacture the device which makes quick work of cleaning up after spilled dry soils when one wants to avoid lugging out an electric vacuum.

In 1869, one Ives W. McGaffey invented a wooden cleaner with a canvas bellows that would be pumped as you pushed. Non-motorized, but still the first true vacuum cleaner. He obtained a patent for the machine, which he called the "Whirlwind," on June 5, 1869.

The first mechanical vacuum cleaners were aimed at the commercial market. The huge infernal devices would be drawn by horse. A gasoline motor ran the suction device, and the hoses would be shoved through the doors and windows of office buildings and department stores to clean the huge carpets within.

John Thurman of St. Louis, Missouri patented his gasoline-powered door-to-door vacuum service in 1899. One could have Thurman vacuum the whole house or business for $4. This is considered the first motorized vacuum cleaner. Hubert Cecil Booth, a British engineer, first used his gasoline-powered device in a restaurant in 1901. American David E. Kenney installed his machines in a building's cellar, where it was hooked up to a network of hoses leading to each room. That device was not only used commercially, but installed in the homes of those who could afford them.

The Vacuum Cleaner as We Know It

It was a humble Janitor who worked for a department store in Canton, Ohio who invented the first practical self-contained electric vacuum cleaner. James Murray Spangler suffered asthma and believed the dust kicked up by his carpet sweeper aggravated his condition. He set to work trying to invent a filtered alternative to the carpet sweeper.. His first contraption was an electric fan inside of a tin soap-box with a pillow case as a dirt bag; all screwed onto a broom handle. Don't laugh; this is the truth and he continued improving his portable vacuum cleaner and received a patent in 1908. Spangler's cousin bought one, and her husband, William H. Hoover, a leather goods manufacturer, went into business with Spangler. The machines looked abominable but worked. The company turned out six machines a day, working in one corner of Hoover's leather manufactory.

"There's Nothing Like A Hoover® When You're Dealing With Dirt!"

The fledgling company's sales were slow until an advertisement in The Saturday Evening Post offered a ten-day home trial, free and without obligation. The rest is history; in a few years nearly every American home boasted a Hoover® vacuum cleaner.

Innovation in marketing was also a hallmark of the Hoover company. Those who wrote to Hoover to take advantage of the free home trial were directed to a reputable store in their area which carried the cleaners. The store owners got a commission and an exclusive right to sell the cleaners in a given area. The national dealer network is still in place to this day. Typically, Hoover dealers don't just sell the machines, they offer service as well.

Hoover constantly improved the quality of its products. In 1926, engineers created a machine that not only used suction, but had a belt attached to a roller which was equipped not only with brushes, but with protruding ridges. As the suction raised the carpet slightly, the ridges "beat" the dirt out of the carpet, and the brushes propelled the dirt into the suction of the machine. The advertising motto "it beats as it sweeps as it cleans" was born. Other Hoover engineering firsts were the disposable paper dust bag, the "headlight" for ease of cleaning dark corners, a self-propelled model, and a model with a hose attachment for furniture and draperies.

There are only two of the original 1907 Hoover Model "O" in existence; one the Hoover Historical museum and one owned by an interesting character we'll introduce a bit later in this piece. Great Britain didn't see a Hoover cleaner until 1919. In 1939, the Hoover "Dustette" and "Minor" models were the first "cylinder" style cleaners, which sat on the floor (or stairs), were not equipped with an integrated rotating brush, but rather a hose and various nozzles for cleaning draperies, furniture, and corners. These were intended for cleaning dust above the floor. Suffice it to say that the heavy cast-aluminum machines were unwieldy at best. The Electrolux company was already enjoying success with cylinder or "tank" style models and Hoover wanted to keep up with the competition.

In 1959, keeping up with the "space age" craze, Hoover came up with its "Constellation" model. A tank vacuum, the case was perfectly round, with a large metal skirt at the bottom. What really set this vacuum apart was the fact that it had no wheels; instead, the exhaust from the powerful motor came out within the skirt on the bottom. The cleaner literally glided along on air! The thing looked (and behaved) just like something out of the popular futuristic animated television program The Jetsons. This writer had the opportunity to use one owned by his family. The concept was great; on an even floor or even shag carpet the thing moved around effortlessly. Problems arose, however, when the machine was dropped and the skirt became dented; all the air escaped out of the hole and the thing had to be dragged along. And it was heavy.

Today, beside the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors' Club, there's an on-line "Vintage Hoover Emporium" listed in the credits below. I can understand collecting, let's say, classic cars, but household appliances? Well, it's all history!

Nothing Sucks Like An Electrolux®!

This slogan was used in the U.K. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. When finally the U.S. vernacular invaded England, the company had to drop the slogan.

Electrolux® claims that it beat out the Hoover people, "according to legend" in the race for the modern vacuum cleaner. A man named Axel Wenner-Gren, a Swede, caught sight of a clumsy-looking American-made vacuum cleaner in a store window. It was very costly and very heavy. Wenner-Gren decided that he would come up with a machine that was lighter and cheaper and that he could sell one to every homeowner.

Now, Wenner-Gren was not an engineer or inventor. He was very good at marketing, however. He failed at an attempt to market the American-made Santo vacuum cleaner (the one he saw in the store window). So he turned to fellow Swedish manufacturers, who started manufacturing copies of the Santo, and making improvements. The lighter-weight "Autolux" vacuum was born.

Wenner-Gren pioneered the concept of door-to-door sales of his cleaners. The salesmen could make as much money commensurate with their sales acumen and ability to work hard. The salesman would demonstrate the machine, which right from the beginning was a very high-quality product, and the buyer could purchase it on time; making weekly or monthly payments. By 1919, sales overtook the company's ability to produce the machines, so they expanded, building another factory in the Netherlands and one in Germany. Demand for the Electrolux vacuums swept Europe. By 1924, the cleaners were being imported to the United States. The door-to-door sales approach and the quality of machines made for superb sales results. Discriminating families were willing to pay a bit more for a quieter, high-quality machine than those on the market at the time.

The United States would not see an Electrolux factory until one was built in Old Greenwich, Connecticut in 1931. By 1936 Electrolux had spread to Australia. Now, it was risky building the U.S. factory in the middle of the Great Depression. However, by 1933 with the closure of the banks, the cash that customers used to pay for the vacuums dried up. Electrolux management made the innovative decision to take "moratorium checks" from customers. Even though the Depression endured, Electrolux enjoyed new sales records. When the banks reopened, they made good on the moratorium checks that the company presented.

The factory in Old Greenwich moved from one shift to three. The company never unionized; they were recognized in the community as paying their workers well and giving generous benefits. Slowly but surely, parts which used to be outsourced began being manufactured in the plant. The company also kept park-like grounds, and took care not to pollute the air or water. They were well ahead of their time with regard to the environmental movement.

In 1942 the company ceased making vacuum cleaners and began making motors and control equipment for the armed forces. The were, however, allowed to manufacture replacement parts and service equipment for the machines already in American homes. By 1944 they were back in limited production, and were handing out special contracts to prospective customers for $25 so they would be first on the list to receive post-war machines.

Versatility Due to Quality and Power

By the late '40s and early '50s, Electrolux machines were so powerful, they had power setting controls. At full power, the suction of the device was enough to propel a rotary floor polishing attachment, and even a hedge-trimming attachment (I kid you not). There was a problem, however. In the quest for automation, they went a bit far. When the dust bag was full, the motor would automatically turn off, and a rubber seal would close off the end of the bag. Then, an electrically operated arm would pop open a door on one side of the machine and eject the bag, sometimes at a distance of several feet. Worse, if the cleaner was used to clean fine particles like plaster dust, for example, the change in suction would engage the automatic bag ejector. Customers began complaining that they had to spend extra money because of the half- or quarter-filled bags being ejected. That feature was later replaced with an indicator to alert users to a full bag.

Electrolux finally came out with an innovation to compete with Hoover's unique "beats as it sweeps as it cleans" system. A wire was built into the hose. Contacts plugged into the machine and plugged into the cleaning wand, at the end of which was a brush unit operated by a small but very powerful motor. This innovation was effective in selling the cleaners to customers who were dubious about getting their carpets thoroughly clean utilizing only suction.

Electrolux machines are now being sold by the Aerus company, the current name of the Scandinavian company that granted use of the Electrolux name in the United States. The final thing to be said about Electrolux vacuums is that they have no rival with regard to quality and durability. There are plenty of machines that are 50 years old which have either been repaired or refurbished and are either with their original owners or are being re-sold by dealers. Can you think of another household product that can make that claim?

Kirby: A Lot of Money for a Controversial Machine

Invented by Jim Kirby, his first cleaner used water to separate dirt from exhaust air. Customers weren't too keen on this idea. Kirby's website boasts that his vacuum equipped with a cloth bag came out in 1907; a claim in sharp contrast to evidence provided by third parties about other cleaners. Kirby, however, was the first vacuum to offer a HEPA filter incorporated into the bag; an advantage for customers sensitive to the minute particles regular paper bags leave behind.

Kirby® also claims that it pioneered direct-selling in the 1920s; just like Electrolux. Kirby's demonstrations are a bit more dramatic than are their competition's. For instance, a Kirby representative will often bring a handful of metal nuts and bolts to scatter about a prospective customer's carpet to show the power of the machine.

The downside is that in researching this article, I found not one but two websites harshly criticizing Kirby. Apparently, Kirby's door-to-door salesmen are recruited through a sort of pyramid scheme; with new recruits reporting to higher-ups. Kirby makes various offers, like shampooing and vacuuming an entire room of wall-to-wall carpeting, or cleaning three or four pieces of furniture.

To Kirby's credit is the fact that the machine could suck a bowling ball through a 1/4 inch pipe. They're very powerful. An old trick is for the salesman to scatter some soil around on a carpet, vacuum it with the prospective customer's existing vacuum, then place a special bag in the Kirby and vacuum the carpet yet again. Inspection of the bag shows all of the dirt the other vacuum missed. The vacuum is registered to the owner, who then receives a forty year warranty on the machine, which they honor without question.

The web page about what Kirby puts their sales representatives through is entitled "Kirby Vacuum Cleaners Will Suck The Life Out of You And Your Marriage." So unless you have lots of friends without vacuum cleaners, or live in a neighborhood where people will open the door to strangers, you're over-worked and under-paid. But I digress.

A Kirby vacuum cleaner is a $1,700-$2,400 investment. That's over a thousand more than a deluxe Electrolux. Furthermore, don't go looking for used Kirbys on eBay. Because of their customer registration system, you're forbidden from selling the machine. If you do, the new owner will not enjoy the warranty. In fact, there are cases where persons who've bought Kirbys on eBay who've been successfully arrested for larceny and fined.

A website called has over a dozen stories about the shady tactics Kirby uses to market their products, including getting young people to canvass districts far from home, putting them up in a motel. If they sell their quota, they're paid; if not, they're left in some far away place with no means to get home. The worst is if the machine is purchased on credit. The interest rates are usurious. The silver lining is that one tired salesman who'd gotten sick of the pressure said that indeed there are some fine people working for Kirby and making a good living at it.

The 12-Year Old Who Made it Onto The Late Show With His Vacuums

Kyle Krichbaum owns 160 vacuums of all makes and models. Kyle is 12. His father said that they became aware of his affection for vacuums when he started vacuuming at about 6 years of age. Kyle says his favorite is a 1978 Sears Kenmore® two-speed, dual-fan upright model that he claims was Kenmore's best ever. He has a 1911 hand-pumped non-electric device. Most importantly, beside the Hoover Historical Museum, he is the only one to own an original Model "0" Hoover. The machine is worth $10,000. Nope, that's not a mistake; ten thousand dollars! And get this, he says he picked it up for a dollar. Kyle vacuums every day. He hopes someday to have a vacuum dealership and repair store.

There's another child out there who's even younger than Kyle, five-year-old Aiden Atkins. He, too, vacuums every day. His parents claim that when they go to the mall, he doesn't head to the toy departments; he goes to look at vacuums. His other interest is robots. Aiden has named each of the approximately eight vacuums in his collection. You can see him in action on YouTube here:

Sit There and Watch

Well, it had to happen some day. Those smart folks at the iRobot® company have come out with a robot vacuum cleaner called the Roomba®. This machine uses over twenty sensors to monitor where it's going, adjusting for carpet or bare floors and avoiding stairs and other drop-offs. iRobot calls the technology AWARE, and apparently it knows enough to get the whole room without much repetition of coverage.

What's really amazing is that the base-level Roomba is list-priced at $130. It returns automatically to its charging port, but takes 7 hours to charge. It will vacuum two average rooms on one charge. for $300, the charging time reduces to 3 hours and it does three average rooms. There's a deluxe model that's $100 more if you want it to do what the iRobot people call four rooms.

iRobot, by the way, also makes a robotic floor washer, workshop vacuum, pool cleaner, gutter cleaner, and what they call a "virtual visitor," which is a robot that connects to a remote computer and enables you to check on pets, family members, etc. from a remote computer. It's in beta stage, and there's a waiting list for them. If you're lucky enough to acquire one, it'll set you back $500 just so you can watch kitty soil the floor in your home in New York while you're at Disney World in Orlando.

What?! That's Not Enough Suction?

Well, if you've been bitten by the "vacuum fever" bug, you can always join the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club. The annual dues are $35. They also have annual conventions, and competitions (not unlike a classic car show). I just wonder what the convention hotel staffs think about these folks who bring anywhere from three to a dozen vacuum cleaners to a convention.

This is a Big Subject

Of course, there are plenty of other manufacturers of vacuums. The Dyson company claims that, unlike bag-equipped machines which lose suction as the bag fills, their machine never loses suction, no matter how much dirt you pick up. Black and Decker has for years made what this writer believes is a godsend; the "Dust-Buster," a tiny, rechargeable device that's just right in case the baby spills Cheerios on the floor and you don't want to lug out something larger. In fact, there are conscientious parents who bring the Dust Buster with them to restaurants to pick up the crud that baby throws everywhere. The $30 machine will more than pay for itself in lieu of the exorbitant tips necessary if baby makes a big mess in a public place...


Vacuum Cleaner History at About.Com: (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Manufacturer of the Roomba® Robotic Vacuum Cleaner: (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Official Site of the Vacuum Collectors' Club (I kid you not!) (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Kyle Krischbaum is only 12. He collects vacuums and it got him on Letterman's show: (Accessed August 16, 2008)

This fellow (Aden Atkins) is only five years old but he too is bitten by the suction bag (er, I mean "bug") (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Hoover® (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Vintage Hoover® Vacuum Cleaners in the U.K.: (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Even More Old Bags (pardon me, Hoovers): (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Kirby® Vacuum Cleaners:

Consumer Complaints about Kirby's machines and hard-sell door-to-door pitch here: and here (Both Accessed August 16, 2008)

Electrolux® USA: (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Aerus, the originator of Electrolux: (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Electrolux History: (Accessed August 16, 2008)

Vac"u*um clean"er.

A machine for cleaning carpets, tapestry, upholstered work, etc., by suction.


© Webster 1913.

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