The Vacuum Cleaner
A History

Carroll Gantz
(MaFarland & Co.)
There was the Dundley Pneumatic Sweeper and the Kotten Vacuum Cleaner and the Busy Bee and the Allen manual vacuum that looked like they just got shipped in from Mars. Too, there was the Success and the Skinner Invincible which seemed to invite comparison with a Skil-Saw. There was the Whirlwind and the Leasure which appears to be a mini-combine straight from the corn-fields, complete with little spikey wheels.

Then there's the Marvel and an early Hoover which would give a hernia to anyone trying to operate it. Of course, it was Hoover that ended up at the top of the heap and once you get a gander at the steely-eyed faces of the characters at Hoover, Inc., like "Boss" Hoover or H. W. Hoover, Sr., you can figure out why.

Gantz is more than thorough ... taking us all the way back to hand-pushed carpet sweepers and brooms: the splinter broom and the Sorghum which was sweet and the twig broom, also known as the "Besom," "I will sweep it with the besoms of destruction," (Isaiah 14:23). She notes that in an official Popular Mechanics article on "101 Gadgets that Changed the World," the vacuum cleaner came in eighteenth in a list constructed by "leading technology authorities," appearing somewhat after radio, tv, and the lighbulb.

The coming of the small electric motor a hundred and fifty years ago ushered in the Golden Age of vacuum cleaners, and names like D. T. Kenney and Hubert Cecil Booth were the holders of major patents ... although my favorite in the engineering department was a D. G. Smellie who designed "beater bars" for the Hoover, whatever those may be. Smellie!

Some readers may come to be impatient with a listing of the exact number of models put out by Hoover, although they do include the Handivac, the Floor Mate, the Hygienisac, the Wind Tunnel Bagless, and even one that may have popped up in the pages of Playboy Magazine, the "Friction Drive Baby."

But it's not all lists and changes in belt drive systems in this book. The pictures, some 200 in number, are a joy, bring back some memories for those of us who grew up years before the DustBuster came on the scene. On page 124 is a photograph of the "Kenmore Commander Bullet Model 116." I remember it well: we had one and it looked just like a spaceship, and I could disconnect all the hoses and crank it up, hang on, and we'd be flying, me and the Kenmore, off to outer space, with a real motor that blew out real hot air (and smelly dust) to take me to the fringe of the universe.

One might think that a 206 page book on such a wheezy industrial concept as the vacuum cleaner might be considered overkill, especially where the author manages to bring in such unlikely characters as Vincent Van Gogh (the 1913 International Exhibition in New York), Blaise Pascal (proof of the existence of the vacuum), and Monty Python (something to do with an English vacuum called "The Henry." which is, apparently, extremely hilarious to people from that sceptred isle.)

There are of course, as always, the sales pitches. Those guys at the door with a Hoover in hand. The gimmicks to make you buy (dust was said to be extremely dangerous to your health). And we are allowed to attend the first Hoover International Convention in 1921 when all the sales people rose to intone "The Hoover Song," sung to the tune of the hoary WWI air "The Field Artillery March,"

    All the dirt, all the grit,
    Hoover gets it, every bit,
    For it beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans.
    It deserves all its fame,
    As it backs up every claim,
    For it beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans.
    Oh, it's Hi, Hi, Hee!
    The kinds of dirt are three.
    We'll tell the world just what it means,
    Bing! Bing! Bing!
    Spring or Fall, the Hoover gets them all.
    For it beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans.
--- Ella Wheeler
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