Design: Evolutions In Design No 2: The Vacuum Cleaner

WE USED to damp down dust with tea-leaves and sweep it up. Now we take it for granted that the electric vacuum cleaner is one of the most basic and effective of cleaning tools. Its invention revolutionised dust removal. Instead of needing an armoury of specialised brushes for every imaginable dusting task (a goose wing was recommended for cleaning the spines of books, for example), one greedy nozzle could suck almost anything off anywhere. It, more than any other factor, outmoded spring- cleaning.

Vacuum cleaning was invented almost simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain it was patented by a fairground designer, HC Booth, in 1901. His first machine took the form of an engine, powered by steam and horse-drawn, which was driven around London streets. Vacuum-cleaning tea parties were thrown to admire the smartly-uniformed men from the "BVC" at work.

Fixed engines models were installed in the basement of blocks of service flats. Minterne Magna, built between 1903-7, was probably the first country house to include such a machine in its fittings. The basement suction pump was connected by a series of tubes to the main rooms in the house. In these there were outlets in the skirting boards covered by brass flaps which housemaids could slide aside to plug in hand-held hoses with broad dust-gulping nozzles. Pity, as we shall see, this stopped.

Many patents were taken out for hand- or foot-pumped vacuuming machines such as the 1906 Griffith or the 1910 Baby Daisy, both on view in the London Science Museum. But the machine that became synonymous with vacuum- cleaning was patented in 1908 by an asthmatic school janitor in Ohio, James Spangler. He attached a pillowcase to a broom-handle to catch the dust drawn up by a fan driven by a small electric motor. The reason that we do not now spangler our floors is because his invention was bought and developed by a relation who had found the effect of the automobile industry on his harness business disastrous. His name was W H Hoover.

Hoovers, sold in the USA on the credit system and from door-to-door, became an American institution. In Britain they took longer to be accepted: fear of electrocution was strong.

"There is one definite quality in all reputable makes of vacuum cleaner - the possibility of a shock being received while one is using them is so remote as to be non-existent for all practical purposes," declared Ideal Home 1930. But once electricity was generally available, vacuum- cleaners - Goblins and Electroluxes as well as Hoovers, became indispensable.

Their shape streamlined and went agreeably pastel once the mistress of the house rather the housemaid had to use them. Cloth bags were replaced by hard containers with disposable paper liners. But in the last decade doctors mystified by the soaring rate of asthma in children have begun to give these household wizards a hard stare. Do they recirculate house- mites as well as remove dust?

Latest in the long line of changing shapes is the Dyson, a flashy machine with a see-through container that gives a reassuring view of the dust you've captured. But it still doesn't show the bits that got away. And the most up-to-date advice on asthma suggests you bring back spring-cleaning and bare boards and thin rugs in bedrooms. Maybe we should try tea-leaves and a soft broom too.

Christina Hardyment is the author of `Behind The Scenes, Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses' (National Trust)

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