Vacuum And The Servantless Household

The Industrial Revolution. Feminism. Religious activists. Rudimentary fluid power. A strange partnership? Not necessarily.

The 19th century Industrial Revolution was not confined to factories. Concurrent social upheavals provided opportunities to transfer technology developed for industry into the home.

Around the time of the Civil War, feminists and activist groups such as the Quakers voiced their concerns about the literally backbreaking labor done in the home. They also foresaw that freeing domestic slaves would have an immediate impact on housework.

Catherine Beecher (sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) wrote and spoke as early as the 1840s about mechanizing and organizing homes using the principles of efficiency and productivity that were beginning to have some impact on factories at that time.


The development of the ordinary household vacuum cleaner illustrates the interaction of these converging forces. The pneumatic-action carpet sweeper was patented in America in 1859. Oddly enough, this early model did not suck up dust but blew it out by means of a rotating fan. The name vacuum cleaner was first recorded in the Oxford Dictionary in 1903.

These early machines were difficult to use because they required large electric motors, piston-type pumps, and numerous hoses. These difficulties created job opportunities for some industrious individuals who hauled the bulky equipment around in horse-drawn carriages offering professional housecleaning services.

Another approach to automation was to install permanent, stationary vacuum systems in large buildings – with the motor in the basement and tubes leading to each room. Hoses with bristle attachments could be connected to the tubes.

The advent of fractional horsepower electric motors at the beginning of the 20th century drastically altered the vacuum cleaner. Now the portable unit could indeed become part of the solution to the problems articulated by Catherine Beecher and others. One early portable vacuum cleaner was developed by a woman, Corrine Dufour. It was composed of a rotary brush, an electrically driven fan, and a wet sponge for catching dust.

The original names in the portable vacuum industry are still familiar today. The upright Hoover introduced in 1908 used a brush, fan, and collecting bag system. The Swedish Electrolux in 1924 was the first canister type.

Industry, feminists, and humanists realized a kind of triumph in 1917 when the Montgomery Ward catalog could offer an electric, portable vacuum cleaner for only $19.95. The vacuum cleaner was within the reach of the average household and quickly became a status symbol as well as a tremendous help.

Unfortunately, someone then thought of wall-to-wall carpeting!!

Judith L. Steininger Professor General Studies This department – which is published periodically – presents thoughts and comments (some technical some whimsical) about fluid power and the industries which it serves from the faculty and staff of the Milwaukee School of Engineering.

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