The vacuum cleaner came as a boon to the legions of women who suddenly found themselves without servants in the 1920s and 1930s.
There was a time when every upper- and middle-class household had its retinue of servants. Even quite modest homes had a maid or two tucked away in the attic or basement. World War 1, however, changed all that. The young girls who would normally have gone into service found better-paid work in industry. Few chose to be maids, a job that involved long hours of hard, physical slog.
Suddenly, the mistress of the house was expected to do her own cleaning. Fortunately, the shortage of domestic help coincided with the wiring up of an ever-increasing amount of homes with electricity and with the wider availability of labour-saving devices.
One of the most important was the vacuum cleaner, patented by Cecil Booth in 1901. Booth's petrol-powered invention was far too big to be kept in the house. It came on a horse-drawn cart, complete with a squad of uniformed operators. The arrival of one of these monsters, known almost universally as Puffing Billies, never failed to draw a crowd.
Booth produced an electric cleaner, but this, too, was a cumbersome machine, which had to be wheeled around on a trolley. In 1907, an American called J Murray Spangler thought of using an electric fan to suck in air and a bag to filter out the dust. He showed his invention to a saddler, W H Hoover, who in 1908 set up the Electric Suction Sweeper Company to make lightweight 'stick and bag' cleaners.
THE HOOVER VACUUM CLEANER
By 1920, Hoover was turning out thousands of cleaners that fitted neatly into a cupboard and didn't need a weight-lifter to operate them. Innovations such as interchangeable brushes and nozzles followed. A rotating metal bar fitted with brushes was added in 1926 to free dust from the fibres of the carpet. This inspired Hoover's famous slogan, 'It beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans'.
Stick and bag cleaners evolved alongside cylindrical models with a long hose, designed to be pulled behind the user rather than pushed. These were first made in 1910. This type was the first to be fitted with disposable dust bags, first produced by a company called Airway in 1930. One invention that didn't take off in Britain was to house a central vacuum pump in a cellar or other convenient spot, with outlets in each room. To use it, you simply plugged in a cleaning hose. This system is now making a comeback, especially in the wooden frame houses of North America.
Old vacuum cleaners can turn up in the oddest places and would-be collectors must be prepared to search them out; look in flea
markets, car-boot sales, junk shops, house sales and the attics of friends and relatives.
remember that you will have to house a collection; their traditional home in the
understairs cupboard can only take so many.
As well as electric models, you may come across 'non-motorized' cleaners, basically
glorified carpet sweepers fitted with bellows. They look like electric versions but don't
work nearly as well. Maguire and Catchell produced one called the Wizard that needed
two people to operate it - hardly a labour saving device!
No one collects vacuum cleaners as things of beauty. The main interest is mechanical, and in what they can tell you about the way previous generations did their housework. Some vacuum
cleaners, though, are stylish, good-looking machines that can be an asset to a period
Obviously, a cleaner in good working order will command a better price than an old, clapped-out model. Before
you use any old vacuum cleaner, though, make sure that it is in good electrical order and correctly wired. You shouldn't really operate one without a fused three-pin plug. Don't use any machine with a frayed flex, or one that is held together with insulating tape and hope.
If you're planning on buying an old cleaner to use on a regular basis, make sure that it's one where the parts and the replaceable accessories, such as dust bags, can be reasonably easy to come by. Go for a fairly recent model from a famous name manufacturer.
Before buying, check that everything is present. Missing
attachments and bits and pieces that don't actually interfere with working of the cleaner don't matter
particularly, though their absence should bring down the price. An undamaged hose is vital. Check it carefully for splits or for signs that the rubber has perished.
Accessories such as interchangeable heads crevice nozzles or upholstery brushes, for instance - add value. Original packaging, rarely found, is highly desirable, especially if rarer still - it's in fairly good condition. The same goes for instruction manuals.