The material world: Simply the best

The carpet sweeper has a humble, if not unhonourable, role in that great adventure of the 20th century: the mechanisation of labour; the material world stephen bayley
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Writing in a miasma of post-War nostalgia for a lost age of innocent, the architectural historian JM Richards published Castles on the Ground, his celebration of the suburban semi, in 1946. It has a marvellous first line: "Ewbank'd within, Atco'd without". Atco? The famous lawn mower. Ewbank? The famous carpet sweeper. Between them, the twin guardians of domestic probity.

Metroland and MTV

The Ewbank carpet sweeper is the very symbol of suburban domesticity. Just to say the name conjures up (for the pre- MTV generation) the parallel whirr of the lawn mower and throb of the carpet sweeper - comforting chores keeping nature at bay. You can almost smell the grass cuttings and see the motes of dust in the shafts of sunlight in the avenues of Metroland. Even the name is redolent of a sylvan world: Ewbank sounds like the name of a villa. It is pure onomatopoeia.

Dust-busting

The carpet sweeper has a humble, if not unhonourable, role in that great adventure of the 20th century: the mechanisation of labour. It has a subsidiary role in that other phenomenon unique to our age: the cult of hygiene. A fear of germ-laden dust was a popular phobia in the early years of the century. In 1907, a doctor described dusting as a "homicidal practice".

It was to address this threat that the carpet sweeper emerged, although, like so many other labour-saving devices, the carpet sweeper had its origins in America where the first design was patented by Melville Reuben Bissell on 19 September 1876. Ewbank is the British dialect version of this American idea.

The evolution of the carpet sweeper is inseparable from the history of the carpet itself, that denominator of middle-class values. The class below the middle never had carpets; the class above maintained servants to confront lethal dust. It was only the middle classes who needed carpet sweepers, hence their peculiarly precise location in the landscape of our imagination.

The years of decline

In the face of electrical competition - Hoover began importing American vacuum cleaners in 1919 - the decline of the Ewbank was inexorable and inevitable. In America, Bissell carpet sweepers responded to the new technology by employing dramatic styling: in the late Fifties, Harley J Earl, the General Motors designer who gave the world tail fins, two-tone paint and spades of chrome, was commissioned by Bissell to re-design their chief product. So you had a sort of carpet Cadillac, a small masterpiece of garish streamlining. Ewbank was naturally more cautious, but attempted some light flirtation with a Sixties' version of modernism.

Time for a revival

Sales of Ewbanks have settled at about 100,000 units a year, priced between pounds 17 and pounds 35, while vacuum cleaner domination of the domestic market is all but total. Hence, with that pendulum effect so familiar to historians of taste, Ewbank is now due for a revival. With its zero emissions, zero maintenance, low environmental impact, low energy demand and highish efficiency, the dear old suburban Ewbank could, if the light was falling in the right direction, be cast as a quintessentially Nineties machine: light, cheap, inexhaustible and responsible.

This is what must have been going through the mind of Jacques Margry, the new chairman of saucepan-maker, Prestige, which owns Ewbank. Margry has a reputation for rehabilitating lost causes and neglected products - he led the Parker Pen buyout before selling that business to Gillette two years ago. Now that he has acquired (for pounds 15 million) the loss-making Prestige and Ewbank brands from Gallagher, he plans an exercise in applied creativity to compensate for the neglect of the previous management

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