The Vacuum Cleaner: A History

The Vacuum Cleaner: A History by Carroll Gantz was a labour of love by the author, who worked for The Hoover Company for sixteen years. His encyclopaedic knowledge of vacuum cleaner history was too much for my tastes, as Gantz went overboard in listing vacuum patent numbers and serial codes whenever he introduced a new model in the text. The eyes of casual readers will glaze over such meaningless strings of letters and numbers. His tendency to give the birth and death dates for anyone he introduced within the text (even Lenin got a mention) confirmed my suspicion that Carroll was obsessive-compulsive with details. The final nail in the OCD coffin was the tedious anticlimactic end of the book, where the author listed–and described–every vacuum cleaner still on the market as of 2011. That said, you now know what you’re getting into, and those final six pages were a chore to read and ruined what would have made a positive review.

The most interesting part about vacuum cleaner history was not the models that were invented before electricity, nor the modern cyclonic Dyson models of today. I found the advent of industrial design in vacuum cleaner production to be most revealing. In the early days of vacuums, no one paid attention to aesthetics. This didn’t affect only vacuums, but all products, from cars to kitchen appliances. Yet the idea of remodelling an object–while still retaining its functionality–to suit the times with its colour, shape and style revolutionized the way products looked. Art deco, fins on cars and streamlined vacuum cleaners with bullet-shaped canisters are but a few examples. Clunky vacuum cleaners were the way of the past, as industrial design took over the world of household appliances:

“For these early industrial designers, getting into the business was like shooting sitting ducks in a pond. Every product in sight was ugly, ungainly, and obsolete in style, designed by engineers who were totally focused on functional performance, but oblivious to the new modern design trends and totally unaware of the public desire for more attractive appearance. It was an incredibly lucrative business, and it was no surprise that scores of artistically trained professionals entered the new profession due to the extraordinary demand.”

Gantz generously provided photos as well as patent documents for dozens of different models, so one could see the evolution of vacuum cleaner design over the decades. I wasn’t too keen on the corporate side of vacuum cleaner industry, how companies acquired others and what models were continued or cancelled. This was far too much detail for a first-time reader of this subject. I did not know that the first robotic vacuum was introduced in 1957 but never in large quantities. Modern studies on robotic vacuum cleaners showed that people didn’t like having to clear things off the floor in advance of vacuuming (so that the vacuum didn’t pick up stuff that it shouldn’t), and people didn’t like having to rearrange their furniture before they vacuumed with a robot either. I suppose if you left your poker chips or dice on the floor after a night of gaming, you’d risk losing those game pieces along with the potato chip crumbs and stray popcorn if you didn’t pick up after yourself.

I suppose I am just as OCD as the author in that I read this book cover-to-cover, but most readers would likely pick a chapter (they’re ordered by decades) based on the photos they flip to first, and read about the fancy or clunky models available at the time.

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