Neat gadgets: Old cleaning devices attract collectors


September 06, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen

Some collectors celebrate Labor Day searching antiques markets; others tidy up vacation houses and return to the workaday world; and many honor contributions working men and women have made to America. You can do it all at once by joining the parade of collectors of vintage labor-saving devices. Carpet sweepers and vacuum cleaners created a national fetish for household cleanliness and freed Americans from working their fingers to the bones beating dust out of rugs. Now these neat things are attracting increased attention from collectors, and the prescient few who stocked up years ago are making a tidy sum.

These technological innovations didn't eliminate labor, only the drudgery, according to "More Work for Mother," by Ruth Schwartz Cowan (Basic Books, 1983). Anyone who has dragged a vacuum through a house day in and day out, up the stairs and then down, moving heavy furniture along the way, will testify that it's laborious, unglamorous work. But when the first truly effective electric suction sweeper was introduced by the Hoover family in 1908, it was a heralded innovation which transformed American housework.

A century ago heat came from coal-powered furnaces or wood-burning stoves; smoke-belching railroads abounded; unpaved streets turned dusty or muddy; and without air conditioning or electric fans, windows were open wide during the summer's heat. Dirt of all sorts drifted in and became embedded in plush Victorian upholstery, heavy drapes and portieres, and was ground into carpets.

To combat filth long before electricity, housekeepers (whether a paid servant or the unpaid lady of the house) had only brooms and dustpans. They helped spread dust around, so sheets covered furniture on cleaning day. Then came hand-propelled carpet sweepers, first patented in America in 1858 by H. H. Herrick in Boston, based upon a street cleaning device patented in 1811 by James Hume of London.

Rare original Herricks sell for about $400 to $700 in perfect condition, but Peter Frei, who claims the world's largest assemblage of pre-1885 carpet sweepers in private hands, says he wouldn't take $2,000 for his, a labeled squarish wooden box with a cast iron bracket to attach a broom handle, and two tin dustpans inside along with a large brush operated by two iron cog wheels and a smaller smooth one. (Herricks lack bumpers to prevent marring furniture.)

In 1876 Melville Bissell patented the sweeper he developed for cleaning sawdust from the carpet in his Grand Rapids, Mich., crockery shop. Bissell was the industry leader by the turn of the century, and his company is still family-owned and managed. (It recently gave over 1,500 artifacts representing more than 150 sweeper and vacuum manufacturers to the Public Museum of Grand Rapids.)

Mr. Frei spends each spring and summer in Brimfield, Mass., scouting for vintage American mechanical devices, and then returns home to Zurich where he sells them to eager European collectors. (Mr. Frei can be contacted at P.O. 500, Brimfield,

Mass. 01010, phone [800] 942-8968.)

New book

The days of sweeping these collectibles under the rug are over. Despite its messy layout and careless typography, "300 Years of Housekeeping Collectibles: Identification and Value Guide," by Linda Campbell Franklin, is a fastidiously researched book providing a wealth of information on, and illustrations of, early sweepers, vacuums, and other household appliances, gizmos and gadgets. Published by Books Americana, it's available for $24.95 postpaid from the author, 2716 Northfield Road, Charlottesville, Va. 22901.

Ms. Franklin's book includes an 1863 advertisement for the "Boston Carpet Sweeper" manufactured by Haley, Morse & Co. in New York City, showing a well-appointed Victorian living room and an elegantly attired woman easily pushing the walnut-cased sweeper with a long pivotal handle to "sweep under beds, sofas, tables and pianos without moving them, or constant stopping." (Many fancy sweepers had wood cases, hand-painted or stenciled with floral Victorian decorations, to match the furniture.) At $3.50 each, they were touted as more economical than brooms. The manufacturer predicted that the Boston Sweeper would last from five to 10 years, quite an understatement considering collectors still find them in working condition, priced from $200 to $300, according to Ms. Franklin.

Sweepers from 1880 to 1910 are particularly popular with collectors and generally cost about $85 to $250. Post-World War I models typically bring under $25, and post-1945 sweepers under $15.

First Hoover

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