Collectors Corner: Vacuum Cleaners
By Michele Alice
Man works from sun to sun, but woman's work is never done..
For centuries, women have labored in the home - cooking, washing, sweeping, scrubbing - all the while caring for young children, teenagers, and husbands. Many of those household chores were boringly repetitive, time-consuming, and/or required a surprising amount of strength and stamina. Just ask yourself: when was the last time you hauled buckets of water to the laundry tub, churned out a couple pounds of butter, and dragged heavy carpets outside to the clothes lines to pound out the dust and dirt? (This last could be particularly nasty if a sudden shift in the wind blew the cloud of debris in your direction!)
Thank goodness for the creation of labor-saving devices and services like washing machines, supermarkets and vacuum cleaners.
Groundwork for the modern vacuum was laid in the mid-19th century with the development of the first patented carpet sweepers and manually operated vacuum cleaners. One of the earliest of these was Ives W. McGaffey's hand-cranked vacuum patented in 1869. Marketed as the "Whirlwind," only two specimens are known to have survived to this day.
H Cecil Booth of England is credited with receiving the first patents, in 1901, for a motorized vacuum cleaner. Too large for single household use, his invention was a horse-drawn affair - powered first by an internal combustion engine and later an electric motor - which he offered as a cleaning service.
The first portable household electric "suction sweeper" did not appear until 1907, when James Murray Spangler, a Canton, Ohio janitor, was forced to invent a better cleaning machine to alleviate his asthmatic symptoms. Unable to produce and market the machine himself, he sold his patent to his cousin's husband, William H. Hoover, who managed to kick-start sales through savvy marketing of the now famous "Model O."
The success of Hoover sparked competition with a number of other now-familiar companies including Bissell, Kirby, Royal, Eureka and Electrolux. However, vacuum cleaners remained luxury items until after World War II. By the 1950s, most middle-class households could afford to purchase one or more uprights or canisters, the two main types. And by the end of the 20th century, most units had become so affordable that they could be considered disposable, rather than repairable.
Primarily due to their size, vacuums are not as common among collectors as, say, transistor radios or alarm clocks, so prices are very dependent upon such factors as rarity, the degree to which the machine is in original condition, and whether or not it still works.
"Firsts" and "Unusuals" like the Hoover Constellation are quite desirable. Introduced in 1954, the earliest Constellation (Model 82) was a spherical canister designed to sit in the middle of a room while its suction hose rotated around it. The vacuum was redesigned the following year when Constellation Model 84 featured Air-Ride, allowing the machine to float like a hovercraft.
The Kirby Dual Sanitronic 50 (1965-1967) is another vacuum that is trading at premium in the secondary markets. It came equipped with a two-speed motor and all the attachments necessary to enable it to be used as a canister or upright, hand portable, power polisher, suds-o-gun, and rug renovator. And taking advantage of the growing interest during the 1960s in air quality, the Sanitronic was equipped with a bag that allowed the operator to scrape out the collected dirt without coming into contact with it.
While most used vacuums presently sell for up to $50, exceptionally fine examples (often with original packaging) of machines like the Constellation and Sanitronic have fetched up to $1000 at online auctions.
Collectors are always on the lookout for related items like vintage ads, attachments, and original supplies such as disposable bags. There's even a market for some non-functioning machines if they can be cannibalized for replacement parts.
Interested in learning more about this unusual collectible? Check out the resources listed below, and
More Work for Mother: The Ironies of Household Technology from the Open Hearth to the Microwave, by Ruth Schwartz Cowan
Never Done: A History of American Housework, by Susan Strasser
The Vacuum Cleaner: A History, by Carroll Gantz
Cat Fleas' Journey into the Vacuum is a "One-Way Trip" - Good news for pet owners!
The Cyberspace Vacuum Cleaner Museum - Illustrated "exhibits" are grouped by manufacturer. And check out the Museum's Foyer for an entertaining dissertation on "Dirt."
How Vacuum Cleaners Work - Illustrated section at How Stuff Works provides clear explanation.
Kirby - Official website includes printable copies of many models' manuals.
Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Factory Outlet - Brick-and-mortar display of over 600 working vacuum cleaners. Located on Route 66 in St. James, Missouri, admission is free.
Vacuumland - Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club site hosts several forums including Vintage, Contemporary (less than 20 years old), Discuss-o-Vac, and Super Market (vacuums and related items wanted or for sale). And check out the Collections (lots of great pics) and Vacuum of the Day pages! Membership includes quarterly printed newsletter and annual members-only convention.
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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