That Sucking Sound

Birth of the Vacuum Cleaner

Before the turn of the 20th century one of the major chores of spring cleaning was hauling the carpets outside, draping them over something and beating out a year’s worth of dust and dirt. Why didn’t those 19th-century housewives just vacuum up all the dirt? Because there were no vacuum cleaners– not as we know them today.

The first patent of a suction “sweeping machine” was granted to Chicago inventor Ives McGaffy in 1869. The “Whirlwind,” as it was called, was a hand-pumped contraption made of wood and canvas, and was marketed by the American Carpet Cleaning Company of Boston, Massachusetts. Ironically the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and the Great Boston Fire a year later destroyed most of the company’s inventory.

There were a variety of other manually operated vacuum machines invented, and available into the 1930s, but they were cumbersome and not very efficient.

Horse-drawn Vacuums

What made hand-powered suction cleaners so inefficient was that it took a lot of energy to operate them, Not only that, but the pumps couldn’t be operated fast enough or consistently enough to create a steady suction. The motor changed that.

Two versions of a gasoline-powered vacuum cleaner were invented independently, but at almost the same time, on both sides of the Atlantic. One, by an American, John Thurman, was patented in 1899; another by an Englishman named H. Cecil Booth was patented in 1901. Both were large machines mounted on horse-drawn carts. Teams of operators fed hoses in through windows and sucked the dust and dirt out into the noisy pumps.

Booth’s real contribution to vacuum cleaner technology was the cloth filter, which kept dirt out of the motor and collected it in a container that could be emptied. Before designing his machine he tested this idea by placing his handkerchief over a cushioned chair and sucking air through it. When he got done coughing and choking he saw that, indeed, the handkerchief had trapped a significant amount of dust.

“Booth’s Original Vacuum Cleaner Pumps,” which came to be known as “Puffing Billies,” were of use only to businesses and wealthy homeowners– they were the only ones who could afford his services. His teams of cleaning technicians performed their work with such ceremony that sometimes society matrons would invite their friends to drawing-room tea parties to observe the process. (Presumably they found vacuuming much more entertaining than we do today.)

There was enough demand for Booth’s cleaning machines in England– the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and a number of theaters were all customers– that he manufactured 30 or 40 of them.

During World War I Booth was credited with ending a spotted-fever epidemic among Naval Reserve forces quartered inside London’s Crystal Palace, which had gathered dust since it was built for the 1851 Great Exhibition. Doctors suspected contaminated dust was causing the soldiers to fall ill and Booth was called in with his “Puffing Billies.” In two weeks fifteen of Booth’s machines sucked out twenty-six truckloads of germ-laden dirt and the epidemic ended.

In America Thurman’s invention was also of more benefit to the wealthy than to common people. An ad in a turn-of-the-century edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch advertised Thurman’s vacuuming services for the princely sum of $4, which was more than a day’s wages for a middle-class wage earner. Thurman was less successful than Booth and he never formed a manufacturing company.

Portable Power

The first electric vacuum cleaner was marketed by the San Francisco firm of Chapman and Skinner in 1905. But at 93 lbs. with an 18-inch fan it was too big and bulky to be practical Even if you had a closet big enough to store it in, it took two or three people to operate it. It was beyond the reach of most households and never gained popularity.

Then, in 1907, by an amateur inventor named J. Murray Spangler changed everything. Spangler was moonlighting as a janitor for a department store in Canton, Ohio. The dust from the rugs he cleaned aggravated his asthma, so he took an electric fan, a soap box, a sateen pillow case, and a broom handle and built an odd-looking contraption which sucked up at least some of the dust that was plaguing him. Spangler quickly realized that this “suction sweeper,” as he called it, had commercial possibilities. He tinkered with the design and was given a patent in 1908.

The Original Hoover

One of the first people to try out Spangler’s invention was his cousin, Susan Hoover. Her husband, W.H. “Boss” Hoover owned a horse collar and leather goods manufacturing company. “Boss” was so impressed with Spangler’s machine that he bought the patent and made Spangler a partner in a new company they called the Electric Suction Sweeper Company ( a smart move on Hoover’s part- the demand for horse collars was on the decline).

They soon went into production, making six machines a day in a corner of the leather shop. Their first model weighed just 40 lbs., making it the first truly portable vacuum cleaner.

To promote the new vacuums Hoover placed an ad in the Dec. 5, 1908, Saturday Evening Post offering housewives a free 10-day trial. Hundreds responded, but instead of sending the vacuums directly to the potential customers Hoover notified them that their vacuum would be available from a local store. Hoover would then contact a reputable store near the customer and offer to pay the sales commission to the store if the sale was completed, and to make the store a Hoover dealer, which was the beginning of the international Hoover dealer network.

Sales increased rapidly as Hoover sent trained salesmen to dealers to give in-store demonstrations, as well as sending them door-to-door demonstrating the vacuum cleaner.

In 1910 the name of the company was changed to the Hoover Company. Spangler’s original design was refined and eventually featured disposable bags, a headlight, and the famous rotating beater bar, which was introduced in 1926 (similar to the brush rollers in the hand-pushed carpet sweeper invented by Melvill and Anna Bissell half a century before).

The “Must Have” Machine

By the early 20th century the vacuum cleaner was almost a “must have”– it was the second most popular electric appliance in the home (after the electric iron.) Not only was it convenient, modern ideas of cleanliness made dusty rugs and furniture unthinkable.

The Hoover Company and many other manufacturers of vacuum cleaners have continued to improve on ways of sucking up dirt and dust. Thanks to them spring cleaning can be done all year.

copyright©Jim McCluskey 2002-2012