ETCETERA / Design Dinosaurs: 16 The carpet-sweeper

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The Independent Culture
FEW household gadgets have survived virtually unchanged from the 19th century. The carpet-sweeper is one. This is baffling, really, when its performance is compared with that of its ubiquitous rival, the vacuum cleaner. Lacking the benefit of suction, the carpet-sweeper has always depended for its effectiveness on two things: the enthusiasm of the operator, and the skill of the manufacturer at getting the dust to stay put. Too often, sweeping the contents of a spilt ashtray merely means receiving yesterday's cake crumbs in return.

Before the carpet-sweeper, carpet cleaning consisted either of in situ brushing or of laboriously flogging the carpet out on the washing line. As dirt and dust were a fixation in late 19th-century Britain, and as the Victorians adored new contraptions, the market was perfectly poised when Melville Reuben Bissell patented what amounted to an automated dustpan-and-brush in 1876. Borrowing an idea which had first been used in a street-sweeping machine invented by Joseph Whitworth some 30 years earlier, Bissell used brushes revolving on a drum to sweep dirt into an emptiable container. His device - a four- wheeled wooden box with a rubber bumper round the edge to prevent it from damaging the furniture - was instantly successful, and continued to be so until Hoovers started sweeping Britain after 1912. In the 1880s Bissells were used 'daily in the households of HM The Queen and HRH The Princess of Wales'. There were several models, from the Baby (for children), to the Parlour Queen (for the thickest piles); aluminium castings gradually replaced wooden parts, making the machines lighter and easier to use. Today's models (from pounds 10 to pounds 30) also have adjustable height, dust-level windows, independently sprung wheels, even, on the latest Bissells, eccentric-looking rotary brushes on the front corners. But none, not even the silver version used for sweeping tablecloths in fancy restaurants, has lost the essential character of the original: maddening ineffectiveness.