The Oldest Vacuum Cleaners

It’s been a while since House Crazy Sarah featured some Cool Old Stuff, but she recently happened across this 1906 photo of a monstrously huge early model vacuum and she was intrigued.

historic vacuums

So let’s have a closer look at the oldest and earliest vacuum cleaners!

The first vacuum cleaners were rather large and cumbersome.

antique vacuum cleaner

Before the advent of the vacuum, it was the good old-fashioned broom. But tinkerers and inventors and housewives thought there needed to be a better way.

vintage vacuums

It started n England where inventors earned patents for “mechanical sweepers” that cleaned both streets AND floors & carpets. Their inner workings were simply a manual system of pulleys and cranks that rotated a brush that pushed dirt into a receptacle.

In 1858, Hiram Herrick of Boston submitted what was most likely the first American patent for a “carpet sweeper”. But few of these were actually produced and sold.

Still, in many parts of the midwest and northeast United States, people still refer to the vacuum as a “sweeper”.

antique vacuum cleaners

Then Daniel Hess, an Iowa inventor, changed the carpet-sweeping concept with a breakthrough addition: air. Hess’s 1860 patent was still manually operated but you needed a bellows to create suction to draw in the dirt. Hess’s device was the first rudimentary design for the modern vacuum cleaner.

antique vacuum cleaners

Taking the concept a step further in 1869, Ives McGaffey of Chicago used a fan to move the air and designed his machine to stand upright. McGaffey’s “Whirlwind” was not a success because they were expensive and difficult to use.

In 1898, John S. Thurman of St. Louis created a gas-powered “pneumatic carpet renovator”. Since the device was the size of a horse-drawn carriage, Thurman made house calls and charged a pretty penny.

The English structural engineer Hubert Cecil Booth took the contraption a step further.

Booth essentially reverse-engineered Thurman’s patent and came up with the “Puffing Billy”, a large red, gasoline-powered machine that paraded through London’s streets pulled by a horse-drawn carriage.

The “Puffing Billy” circa 1901

Puffing Billy vacuum cleaner

By the turn of the century, Booth’s device was being built right into the homes of the wealthy, creating the central vacuum. They became very popular with the upper class, but due to their size and cost, they were out of reach for the rest of society.

In 1907, an Ohio janitor changed that. Although James Murray Spangler did not invent the vacuum, he revolutionized it.

Spangler’s job was to clean the floor in a large department store in Canton, Ohio each night. It was a tedious task that was dust-filled and unpleasant.

early vacuum cleaners

A curious tinkerer, he devised his own contraption using a broom, a pillowcase, and an electric motor. It was surprisingly effective.

What made Spangler’s machine different than others at the time, was that it was upright and portable.

early vacuum cleaners

The crude machine worked by sucking the dirt in and blowing it out the back into the attached pillowcase. Spangler patented it in 1907, quit his job, and opened the Electric Suction Sweeper Company. Investors helped him to begin production on his patented sweeper. It all sounded great, but it wasn’t the huge success everyone had hoped for.

After purchasing parts and factory space, Spangler ran out of cash so he used his house as collateral for a loan. When he defaulted, authorities were actually coming to take his home when he turned in desperation to one of his early satisfied customers: his cousin, Susan Hoover.

Recognize the name?

vintage vacuum cleaners

Susan Hoover’s husband was William Hoover, who was a successful leather goods manufacturer. William Hoover reluctantly purchased the patent from Spangler in 1908.

vintage vacuum cleaners

Pouring money into the company, Hoover was the one who turned Spangler’s invention into a success.

vintage vacuum cleaners

More than a century later, everyone knows the name Hoover. The company still does millions in sales a year. (At some point people even called the act of vacuuming “hoovering.”)

antique vacuum cleaner

Not that there aren’t other popular brands that have taken hold, but the Hoover name will always be synonymous with the creation of the successful vacuum cleaner.

And there you have it.

Now House Crazy Sarah has to go Hoover her pet-hair-covered floor!




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