Vacuuming our way to a cleaner America

If you have a hobby or passion, these days all you have to do learn about it is cruise the Internet. For those of us fascinated with history, the Net is a positive gold mine of information. But there are electronic niches out there for just about anyone.

My wife, for instance, has lately been obsessed with housecleaning ideas. And so she spends time watching YouTube videos of ladies all over the world explaining how they clean their houses and on what schedules, which might seem odd to some, but are of surpassing interest to her.

Actually, housecleaning here in the U.S. is big business. If you don’t believe me, just watch daytime TV for about a half hour and count the number of commercials for household cleaning products, or walk down the housewares aisles in your average Meijer or Walmart store.

Although I’m not down with housecleaning as a major facet of my life, I have to admit I do enjoy watching those vacuum cleaner commercials on TV. The machines look all shiny and futuristic, and that Dyson guy you used to see all the time had a cool British accent, which, I imagine, got the attention of the ladies, at least. Even though all he really was was a vacuum cleaner salesman.

Consumer Reports remains unconvinced that paying many hundreds of dollars for one of Dyson’s creations (or anyone else’s, for that matter) makes much financial sense when you can pick up a perfectly good vacuum at Meijer or Sears or Best Buy for about $100 that performs as well if not better.

Grandma's Kenmore

My grandmother’s Kenmore canister vacuum was our first in 1966 and soldiered on until the 21st Century.

After we got married, our personal vacuum cleaner experience began with my grandmother’s late 1940s vintage Kenmore tank-type machine, which we were gifted along with the family refrigerator and family apartment-sized gas stove. The Kenmore was nicely torpedo-shaped, and was mounted on a sort of hand-truck so it could be trundled from room to room or up and down stairs. We loved that vac, and I think it might still be out in the barn somewhere

When we moved from my great-great grandmother’s old 1850s-era home into my great-grandmother’s much more modern (definition: central heat) 1908 house in 1976, my mother (my parents preceded us in ownership) left her Hoover upright for us to use. A late 1950s model, it was a lot newer than the Kenmore, and did a better job on wall-to-wall carpeting. The Kenmore was relegated to the second floor, for use on un-carpeted wooden floors. After my grandmother’s death in the late 1970s, we inherited her “new” Hoover upright, purchased in the early 1960s. The old upright went upstairs, and the “new” Hoover became the main vac. The canister went down to the basement to become a shop vacuum. Since then, we’ve purchased three new vacuums, all black, sinister looking Eurekas with fearsome suction power that have been doing good work for about 20 years now.

Back when we bought the first Eureka, we noticed the new vacuum worked a lot better than the old Hoover, which meant we had different standards against which to judge a clean floor.

That’s the thing about “clean;” especially when you’re talking about the past, it’s a relative concept.

For instance, our colonial forebears had a far different concept of “clean” than we do today. Garbage, animal droppings, dirt, and dust were all thrown into the street, creating what was a truly remarkable bouquet on warm, humid summer evenings. Combine that with the general population’s distrust of regular bathing, and the mind boggles at what the aroma must have been like, say, having a beer with the boys down at the local stagecoach tavern.

Half-faced camp

Cleaning house took a backseat to keeping warm and dry for the earliest pioneer families who made due with a half-faced camp while they built their first log cabin.

When the 19th century made its debut, cleanliness appeared to be on the upswing—at least comparatively. But frankly, for most of the Americans who decided to blaze a trail or two west, keeping clean wasn’t a priority. After they arrived along the Fox River following a month or more on the trail, settlers built their half-faced camps (your basic lean-tos) and lived there until their log cabins could be raised. While that process continued, cleanliness was not much of a consideration; keeping dry and warm were the main goals.

Even after a pioneer family’s log cabin was erected, cleanliness wasn’t easy. For instance, most of the earliest cabins had dirt floors. Pioneer women tried to keep the floors swept, and surprisingly, they managed to make some of those early cabins look neat. One trick was to sprinkle salt on the floor while sweeping. Eventually, the combination of foot traffic and sweeping hardened the salt and dirt floor into something resembling thin concrete that could actually be kept sort of clean. Even so, after a few months living with dirt floors, most pioneer wives insisted on a wooden floor made from split logs called puncheons.

rag rug strip

Old clothing could be recycled into rag rugs on looms like my great-grandmother’s. Long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs of just about any size.

Keeping things what we’d consider clean didn’t really get a good push until the germ theory of disease was finally accepted—which didn’t take place, remarkably, until after Robert Koch’s work was published in 1881. Until then keeping things clean wasn’t a priority for many Americans, with the notable exception of New Englanders and Quakers. Ben Franklin, writing as Poor Richard (not the Bible), suggested “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” Especially on the frontier, though, folks just weren’t buying it. But from the time germ theory was generally accepted, house cleaning became a major preoccupation of housewives, spurred on by how-to articles in women’s and farm magazines and later pushed by farm and social organizations that stressed its utility is preventing and fighting illness.

By the late 19th Century, area rugs in homes, even farm homes, were common. To create a room-sized rug, long strips of manufactured ingrain wool carpeting or handmade rag rugs were sewn together. My great-grandmother was a rag rug weaver in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—we still have the handmade loom on which she made them—who made money recycling folks’ old clothes into rugs.

Ingrain Carpet strip

Wool cut pile ingrain carpeting was the first commercially available after the proper looms were perfected in the 1850s. Like rag rugs, long strips could be sewn together to create area rugs.

It was common to use clean straw as padding for carpeting in those days, with fresh beds of the stuff laid down after spring and fall housecleaning. By the time the household had walked on the straw rug padding for a few months it largely turned into dust, which was another reason good housewives found spring and fall housecleaning necessary.

Until after the first two decades of the 20th Century, housecleaning was virtually all done manually during spring and fall housecleaning. The carpet was taken apart into its component strips, taken outdoors, and the accumulated dirt, straw, and dust was physically beaten out of it with carpet beaters. Dirt and dust indoors was swept up using brooms, or dusted off using dust cloths and feather dusters.

And then came the first un-powered carpet sweepers, which were better than nothing.

But when electricity arrived, even in rural areas, in the 1930s, keeping things clean got a real boost.

My grandfather was always fond of gadgets. He had his farm neighborhood’s first gasoline-powered tractor and its first radio, a battery-powered Neutrodyne 500 five-tube table model made by the Wm. J. Murdock Co. in 1925, with a large horn for a speaker. It also had jacks for two sets of headphones. And, early-adopter he was, after rural electrification got to their farmstead he bought one of the earliest electric vacuum cleaners in the neighborhood. He was so proud of it that he took it around to show his Wheatland Township neighbors, using it to vacuum “clean” carpets to show how efficient it was. The amount of dirt that came out of rugs that had just been beaten or cleaned with a carpet sweeper always amazed people. At least one farmer became very upset with his wife after such a demonstration, telling her he thought she said she worked hard cleaning house. From the look of the pile of dust that Grandpa emptied out of his newfangled vacuum, she wasn’t working hard enough, the fellow fumed. My grandfather always said he was sorry his enthusiastic demonstration of his new labor saving tool got his neighbor’s wife in trouble. I’ve always thought that story was interesting because it illustrated that my grandfather, unlike his neighbor, didn’t blame my grandmother for not working hard enough, but was fascinated that a machine could clean more effectively than even the best housewife.

1930s Kenmore upright

With the extension of electrical service, even into rural areas, by the 1930s electric vacuums became the best way to keep carpeting clean.

During the 1930s and 1940s, most homes in the U.S. were wired for electricity and got indoor plumbing, both of which made keeping things clean a whole lot easier. It became so easy, in fact, that cleanliness became the norm, giving rise to whole industries, not the least of which was that fixture of the post-World War II years, the door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. That era, too, is pretty much over now with the exception of the occasional Kirby or Rainbow vacuum cleaner salesman who requests an appointment to conduct entertaining (if, at least for us, unproductive) demonstrations.

Benjamin Franklin, as I noted above, writing as Poor Richard, contended that “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” and from all the soap and cleaning commercials you see on TV, we seem to have taken his aphorism to heart. Nowadays, we’ve got the technology to really do a number on dirt. We mean business, and speaking for my household at least, one of these weekends, we’re really going to clean house.

 

 

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Filed under Business, entertainment, Environment, History, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Technology

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