By Rosemary Lane
In 1906, James Spangler, the inventor of the modern vacuum cleaner, was working as a janitor at an Ohio department store. The 48-year-old spent his nights sweeping the store’s floors, and suffered allergy and asthma attacks as a result. Fed up, Spangler decided to create his own solution. He built the first portable vacuum cleaner out of his wife’s pillowcase, a soapbox, an electric motor from a sewing machine and a broom handle.
Spangler’s invention was one of many incarnations of the vacuum cleaner over its 146-year history — the machine has been dragged around by horses on a wagon, powered by two people teeter-tottering back and forth and fashioned out of hog bristles. The many hands who tinkered with the vacuum — janitors, engineers, china shop owners — not only helped cement its place in almost every home in America, but forever transformed household cleaning.
Before the invention of the vacuum cleaner, carpet cleaning was a laborious task. In her 1841 A Treatise on Domestic Economy, household expert Catharine Beecher offered exhaustive instructions on carpet cleaning. Homemakers were to rub damp tea leaves into carpets with a broom. Carpets were to be dusted once or twice a year, taken outside, and beaten with whips.
In the years following the Civil War, inventors sought to help housekeepers actually remove dust from a room instead of sweeping it into the air. One of the more successful was Ives McGaffey of Chicago, whose 1869 carpet sweeper — a precursor to the vacuum — sucked up surface-level dust with a hand-cranked fan. His “Whirlwind,” which resembled an upright guitar, wasn’t heavy, but it did require hard work, as the operator had to turn a wheel as he dragged it.
Melville Bissell improved upon McGaffey’s design in 1876. Bissell owned a crockery shop with his wife, Anna, in Grand Rapids, MI. Sick of cleaning sawdust out of the carpet of the store, Melville came up with a solution: He attached hog bristles to rubber wheels, which rotated and dislodged dirt as the sweeper was pushed, capturing dust in a box. When Bissell died in 1889, his wife took over the business, becoming the first female CEO in the U.S.
A decade later, Hubert Cecil Booth, an engineer who had designed Royal Navy battleships, Ferris wheels and bridges, debuted the first motorized vacuum cleaner. Booth had attended a demonstration for a new railroad cleaner that blew dirt from seats into a container. He realized that suction would be much more practical than blowing. Booth tested the idea at a restaurant one night, placing a damp handkerchief on an armchair and sucking on it, causing a thick layer of dust and dirt to form on the underside.
Booth’s vacuum cleaner, called the “Puffing Billy,” was heavy, and had to be carted around on a horse-drawn wagon. Operators parked the machine outside homes and dragged a hose through the front door. The hose sucked dirt into a cloth filter. The machine was loud and scared the horses, but it was successful.
The Puffing Billy couldn’t be stored in a closet, though. Enter Spangler, the Ohio janitor. His portable vacuum used an engine-powered fan to create a drop in air pressure at the base, causing debris to be drawn in to a pillowcase. Spangler’s suction sweeper had promise, but he didn’t have the funds to mass market it.
Luckily, his cousin Sarah Hoover and her husband, William H. Hoover, decided to buy the rights and bankrolled it. Soon, Hoover had six employees making six machines a day. In 1926, Hoover improved upon Spangler’s model, adding beater bars that shook up dust and dirt, inspiring Hoover’s advertising, “it beats as it sweeps as it cleans.”
Advertising for Hoover glamorized housework, transforming it from a backbreaking chore to work that could be done in high heels. By 1941, nearly 47 percent of Americans had a vacuum cleaner.
Over the next few decades, few major innovations were made in vacuums. In 1993, James Dyson invented the bagless vacuum after five years of 5,127 prototypes. And in 2002, the robot-powered Roomba hit the floors, giving couch potatoes everywhere one more reason to sit back and spectate.