Ever wondered what kind of artifacts are in the collection of the local history museum? In the popular exhibition program, “Artifact of the Month”, Western Illinois Museum visitors have a chance to satisfy their curiosity. Visitors get the opportunity to see one special item from the museum collection on display for one month. Selected for its unique qualities, the artifact on display always spotlights a facet of the diverse heritage of the McDonough County region.
The “Artifact of the Month” for March at the museum is an early 20th century, non-electric vacuum cleaner. At this time of year, people start thinking of spring-cleaning, so a display of one of the most important home cleaning devices is appropriate.
An antique vacuum cleaner might not seem like the type of thing that should be in a museum. However, preserving everyday objects from the past is important; this artifact provides a tangible, physical connection to our past. By preserving evidence of how people from the past lived their everyday lives, we can better understand the history of the McDonough County region and learn lessons from the past.
The vacuum cleaner originally came from Eph Mercers’ store in Vermont. Purchased by the museum in 1977, the vacuum is part of a large group of antique artifacts from the Mercer store. At his establishment, Mercer sold penny candy and displayed his personal collection of antiques. People from all over the region visited to marvel at the curiosities.
Vacuum cleaners have always played an important part in domestic life. During the 1890s, Victorian homes were filled with carpets and rugs. Before the invention of the vacuum cleaner, the only way to remove dirt was to either sweep your rugs, which did not pick up much dirt, or roll up the rugs and carpets, take them outdoors, hang them on a line and beat them with a device that looked like a giant fly swatter, called a rug beater. Time consuming and laborious, unpleasant and exhausting, cleaning rugs was a task not enjoyed by any Victorian homemaker.
Not surprisingly, any invention that could streamline the cleaning of rugs and carpets was embraced enthusiastically by Victorian womanhood.
The first vacuum cleaners invented were non-electric, manual models. The very earliest patents for vacuum cleaner type inventions date from the 1860s. Most of these were bulky, awkward, and difficult to operate and to manufacture.
It was not until the 1900s that light, portable, easy to operate; workable vacuum cleaners began to appear. They were non-electric and manually operated. Most models worked in the same way; a bellow type contraption was compressed to suck up the dirt.
In the United States, several dozen companies manufactured non-electric vacuum cleaners in the early 1900s, 1914 being the year of peak production.
The primary market for non-electric vacuum cleaners was in rural areas, where as late as the mid-1930s, almost 90% of American farms (over 5 million) did not yet have electricity.
The name David T. Kenney is not often remembered when listing American inventors, but he is very important in the history of the development of the vacuum cleaner. Kenney was the holder of nine patents crucial to the growth of the vacuum cleaner industry in the United States. Beginning in 1901, he designed and developed improvements in vacuums and the patents he received between 1903 and 1913 created the foundation for the American vacuum cleaner industry.
Showing its relationship to Kenney, the vacuum cleaner on display has a red label stating, “Licensed under Kenney Patent Number 847947 – March 19th 1907”. Another label proudly promises fine quality, with a golden banner declaring, “GUARANTEE – this vacuum cleaner is guaranteed against defects in workmanship and material for the period of one year from date of purchase”. Considering this vacuum cleaner is probably about 100 years old and is still operational, their guarantee held up over the test of time!
Painted forest green and measuring 50 inches from end to end, the metal and wood vacuum cleaner vaguely resembles a modern-day carpet sweeper. This type of manual vacuum cleaner is a plunger type. These are among the most common of the early, non-electric vacuum cleaners. Most were sold under a patent license dated December 26, 1911. The cleaner on display has this patent date stamped on it.
Sleek and slender, the cylindrical vacuum tapers at the bottom, ending in hose with a nozzle connected to the gold-colored floor piece.
To operate the cleaner, one hand grasps the wooden handle at the top to stabilize the device; the other hand holds the wooden stick, which fits into the body of the metal vacuum. Similar to the action of churning butter, the operator draws the stick upwards and then pushes it downwards, in and out of the body of the vacuum, creating suction. The action sucks up dirt through a small tube and deposits the dirt in the cylindrical containment area. The vacuum plunger action is the same concept as when the plunger on a hypodermic needle is pulled upwards when drawing blood. The dirt is contained in the main body of the cleaner; in addition, a cloth air filter located above the containment area was included in the design.
Compared to modern vacuum cleaners, the suction on this plunger type of vacuum cleaner was not very great. A lot of energy was expended, pumping up and down creating the suction. However, for a Victorian homemaker who was accustomed to beating her rugs outdoors, this plunger vacuum cleaner was a time-saver, and to her, it did a wonderful job.
Showing that it had been well used -- dirt, possibly 100-year-old dirt, was discovered upon opening the vacuum cleaner. Images of a homemaker, hard at work, pumping away at this vacuum are easy to imagine when peering at the dust vacuumed up from years ago, still clogging the cloth filter. A testament to Victorian frugality, the cloth air filter has two carefully sewn patches Eye-catchingly emblazoned across the cylindrical metal body, in bold red is the single word: NATIONAL. Beautifully painted underneath this word is a majestic bald eagle, clasping in its beak a banner proclaiming “Lanning Stone Sales Co. Philadelphia Chicago”. Clutched by the eagles’ talons is a red-white-and-blue shield with “National Vacuum Cleaner” written.
Found in the back of a 1914 issue of a popular magazine, is an advertisement to be a salesperson for the Lanning Stone Sales Co. It says, “Do you want to make big money? We specialize in high grade vacuum cleaners”. In the early history of vacuums, they were sold by salesmen going door-to-door. By selling such a high quality item this company promised their sales force a lucrative opportunity. It can be surmised that this vacuum cleaner was probably sold by a door-to-door salesman to a home somewhere in this region.
Today almost every American home owns a vacuum cleaner; it is an everyday object, taken for granted. Hauled out and used when there is a need, it serves its purpose and is not given a second thought. However, in looking at this manually operated, non-electric vacuum cleaner on display at the museum , which is so different from a 21st century, electric model – it is easy to imagine the delight of a Victorian homemaker freed from the arduous task of beating away at dirty rugs.
Understanding the context, this vacuum cleaner can graphically show a museum visitor that the turn of the century brought changes in many ways to the Victorian home – that by streamlining an age-old task, this vacuum cleaner eased the cleaning duties of the lady of the house, making her life easier and allowing her some freedom to pursue other activities. This vacuum cleaner changed the lives of women for the better.
From an essay by Heather Munro