Get Sucked In With These 11 Facts About the History of the Vacuum Cleaner
By Janet Burns
However you see the vacuum cleaner—as a futuristic mess-fixer, a source of clogged-filter-frustration, or just a great way to make dogs go completely insane—its hum has been a staple in homes for decades. Here’s everything you need to know about your carpet's best friend.
1. THE EARLIEST CARPET-CLEANING MACHINES WERE HUMAN-POWERED.
In 1869, Ives McGaffey patented a device that used a fan to blow air into a receptacle, but this wasn’t commercially successful. Seven years later, Melville and Anna Bissell patented the Bissell Carpet Sweeper, developed to keep the air in the couple’s crockery shop clean and assembled in part by the Bissells’ neighbors, who helped tie together bundles of hog bristles and added them to rollers. With no powered suction, these rolling bristles did all the work.
2. INNOVATORS PUMPED UP THE VACUUM.
Inspired by the difficulty of removing dust from heavy Victorian rugs and carpets, a wave of inventors experimented with methods for bringing greater power to the war against dirt. From 1860 to the turn of the 20th century, numerous manual vacuum cleaners were patented and marketed with varying success.
These manual devices involved cranks, levers, and other mechanisms for drawing in and trapping dust in cloth or water, and included such models as the Baby Daisy, which used bellows for suction and required two people to operate it, as well as the Kotten Vacuum Cleaner, upon which the user would stand and "rock from side to side like a teeter-totter, activating two bellows."
3. “PUFFING BILLY,” THE FIRST POWER VACUUM, WAS HORSE-DRAWN ...
In 1901, British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth invented the first powered vacuum cleaner, likely inspired by American inventor John S. Thurman’s “pneumatic carpet renovator,” which cleaned by blowing rather than drawing air. Booth’s “Puffing Billy” ran on gasoline and was towed around on a horse-drawn cart due to its massive size. It provided paid “Vacuum Cleaning” services via tubes snaked into the windows of homes or commercial buildings.
4. ... AND HAD BRITISH ROYALTY FOR ITS CELEBRITY SPOKESPERSONS.
In 1902, Booth and Billy were commissioned to clean Westminster Abbey before and after King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra’s coronations. A demonstration from Booth before the royal household so impressed Lord Chamberlain that he bought two of the devices for permanent use at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle.
5. CENTRALIZED, WHOLE-HOUSE VACUUM SYSTEMS APPEARED PRE-1900.
In the late 19th century, a few (wealthy) homeowners installed the central vacuum cleaner’s first iteration, which involved a basement-installed bellows chamber and copper tubing leading to different rooms in a house. High costs and low effectiveness kept the central vacuum from taking hold as a viable cleaning option, until the development of flexible PVC piping in the 1960s allowed for more durable and effective in-room extensions.
6. VACUUMS INSPIRED (AND WERE USED AS) HAIR DRYERS.
In 1888, France native Alexandre F. Godefroy invented a large hood dryer for seated patrons. His device involved the rather basic technology of hooking it up to a furnace. In 1920, the first commercial hair dryers hit the market. These models took cues from evolving vacuum technology, while also employing heated coils, but hair dryers remained bulky and cumbersome until the 1950s.
Before this breakthrough, many owners of early portable vacuums would attach extensions not just to their vacuum’s fronts (the sucking end), but also to their rears, where suction-driven air was expelled. This switch enabled them to dry their ‘dos.
7. HOOVER HELPED THE VACUUM’S POPULARITY EXPLODE AFTER WORLD WAR II.
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Hubert Cecil Booth, the father of powered suction, introduced a “Goblin” portable vacuum model in the 1920s, but it was William Henry "Boss" Hoover whose company and products would shape 20th-century vacuuming. After buying the patent on the Electric Suction Sweeper—a device for easing asthma symptoms that was supposedly jerry-rigged from a Bissell sweeper, a fan motor, a broom handle, and a soapbox—from his wife’s cousin in 1908, Hoover developed the machine for improved home use through the 1930s.
8. HENRY DREYFUSS MADE THE VACUUM STYLISH.
Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss brought his aesthetic expertise to Hoover in the early ‘30s. He helped define the portable vacuum cleaner’s modern shape by covering up its exposed components with a smooth Bakelite hood (though this cover wasn’t given its signature red hue ‘til the ‘50s). With Dreyfuss’ insights and patents, the Hoover Suction Sweeper Company began marketing streamlined machines for the home starting in the late ‘30s, and, in the process, dragged the vacuum cleaner out of obscurity. Today, British vacuum users continue to call the act “hoovering,” regardless of a product’s brand.
9. MIDDLE CLASS AMERICANS' FLOORS SUDDENLY GOT CLEANER.
Following World War II, the price of vacuums came down, but they were still significant investments. The new Hoover Model 150 sold for around $80 in 1937 (close to $1,300 today) and a similar vacuum was the same price in 1956 (closer to $800 in 2015). Even so, American expenditures on household appliances such as vacuums increased twelve-fold between 1945 and 1960 thanks to the booming growth of the middle class.
10. THE FIRST ROBOTIC VACUUM CLEANER WAS NAMED FOR AN EXTINCT ARTHROPOD.
When it debuted on the BBC’s “Tomorrow World” show in 1997, the discontinued Hammacher Schlemmer Electrolux Trilobite became the world’s first robotic vacuum cleaner. The gadget, which used ultrasonic sensors to navigate its way around floors, was named after an extinct arthropod that pored over the ocean’s floors seeking bits of nutrition to suck up. The robotic Trilobite was able to indicate when its bin was full and locate and dock at its charging station when the need arose, but the nature of its navigation system—designed to always keep an inch of distance between the bot and any object it might bonk into—meant that an owner’s floors were never fully cleaned.
11. THE VACUUM IS STILL A STAPLE OF MODERN ART AND DESIGN.
Thanks to Dreyfuss and countless other industrial designers, engineers, and inventors, the modern vacuum cleaner has served as a symbol of chic and functional modern styling for countless artists. Among Jeff Koons’ well-known works are seeming altars to (and installations of) Hoover Convertible and Shelton Wet/Dry vacuums, while Seattle artist Will Flannery crafts sculptures out of deconstructed vacuum parts. The Dutch artist Daan Roosegarde has even proposed to clean up Beijing’s soiled skies with his Smog system, only one of many futuristic visions for the noble, adaptable vacuum cleaner.