Object of the Week

Two vacuum cleaners on display at the Museum. Were they really "labour-saving" devices?

Vacuum cleaners

Two vacuum cleaners, chosen by Kirsty, a volunteer.

So today I discovered why my vacuum cleaner has very little suction – the filter is completely shot! Happily, I can nip onto a well-known online firm and another is winging its way towards me. From Thursday, I should back in business. But what about cleaning the floors in Holst’s time? As a little girl in the 70s (not that long ago) we had both a hoover and a carpet sweeper, and we’d take the rugs out and beat them on the clothes line. A fun activity for a child and anyone who needs to let off steam!

Here at the Holst Birthplace Museum you can see two different early vacuum cleaners. The rather odd looking one is a manual vacuum cleaner. It was patented in 1910, and they were produced until 1938. They were sold to be useful if you wanted a labour-saving device, but didn’t have mains electricity. In Cheltenham, of course, the first mains supply had been introduced in 1895 – you may know the distinctive Electricity House on Clarence Street, its grandiose architecture based on the 15th century Strozzi Palace in Florence, and now a boutique hotel named after the building that inspired it.

The Star vacuum cleaner was made by a company in Wolverhampton who also made bicycles, electric fires – and wheels for horse-drawn vehicles. It has a set of bellows at the top, which you had to push up and down to create suction. Labour-saving? I’m not so sure! Unfortunately, the drum didn’t store the dust very well, and it would tend to blow out again! It was, however, light and easy to use, unlike the first (successful…) vacuum cleaners, made by Booth’s from 1901. These were the size of a milk float, had a petrol engine, and took six people to operate! The hoses came in through the windows and ladies would have vacuuming parties where they sipped tea and watched the novelty at work!

The other machine is a ‘Whirlwind Suction Sweeper’ – made in about 1924, it is again non-electric, but now there is a more familiar looking bag. According to a 1925 advert, it ‘whirls dust from the world and care from a woman’s brow’ and loves dust so much it’s ‘like a cat with a dainty morsel’. Neither of these machines were cheap – the Star was 54 shillings in 1910, and the Whirlwind £4 19s 6d. Did they really save labour in the home, or were they more trouble than they were worth? I’m asking myself that question with my own machine – but I confess I wouldn’t be without with only a carpet sweeper and beater to hand.