My wife has been out of town this week and, in addition to the added responsibilities of feeding myself and deciding what to watch on television, waves of winter weather have turned my commute into nightmares more this week than all of last year. I am trying to post something every week but this week I have been preoccupied, less with “is that ice on the road” and more with what to get my wife for Christmas this year. It is only Wednesday as I write this but I have been as clueless about what to post this week as I am about what gift to give this year. Then a co-worker mentioned the absolute worst gift to ever give your spouse and I remembered this book review I wrote for the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program earlier this year.
I have always been interested in gadgets and when I saw “The Vacuum Cleaner: A History” I thought that it would be at least a great change of pace. Carroll Gantz’s book turned out to be much more than that. Beginning with Levi Dickenson’s 1797 discovery of the best variety of sorghum tassels to use in making brooms Gantz shows us two hundred years of American industrial advances through the lens of floor care. This approach to the history of vacuum cleaners allowed him to illustrate how technological progress changed America’s homelife. The book is richly illustrated with reproductions of patent drawings (that have a definite steampunk feel) and photographs of the vacuum cleaners being discussed. I was surprised at how many of them were familiar.
Quoting from Catherine Beecher’s 1841 book “A Treatise of Domestic Economy For the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School” to demonstrate how labor intensive it was to clean carpets, which were even then very popular among those who could afford them, Gantz clearly demonstrates the need for a better method. Gantz follows the technology from whisk brooms to floor sweepers, to human powered suction cleaners, both one and two person operated machines, and on up to today’s robots. Along the way we learn about steam powered suction cleaners mounted on horse drawn carriages, the advances electrification brought, the battle between AC and DC current, and what that meant for both manufactures and consumers.
As vacuum cleaners changed from wood and leather into plastic and electronics Gantz shows us the birth of industrial design, something that until this book I thought of as simply a marketing tool. Now I have a better understanding of the importance of good design and respect for people like Egmont Aren who redesigned the Kitchenaid Mixer in 1928, making it cheaper to build, half as heavy, and better looking. His design, with a few very minor changes still being manufactured and sold today.
I enjoyed Gantz’s book more than I expected even though my interest faded when reading about last few decades. The history of vacuum cleaners seemed to have been reduced to international mergers, acquisitions, and divisions being spun off. Except, that is, for James Dyson’s story. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of technology or social history. If you know someone with those interests “The Vacuum Cleaner: A History” might be a good gift.
A vacuum cleaner, any household appliance, is never a good choice to give your spouse during the holidays.