History Matters: Vacuum Cleaners
2/22/2011
Spring used to be the only time rugs were cleaned, because they had to be hauled outside and beaten to extract the accumulated grime. Then, in a flurry of invention about 100 years ago, a better way emerged: the vacuum cleaner.
When you do your spring cleaning, you're re-enacting a ritual your ancestors have performed annually for as long as houses have been getting dirty. Spring was the only time rugs were cleaned, because they had to be hauled outside and beaten to extract the accumulated grime. Then, in a flurry of invention about 100 years ago, a better way emerged: the vacuum cleaner.

Since the mid-1800s, inventors had been tinkering with answers to the dirt deposited by the Industrial Revolution. Credit for the first vacuum cleaner belongs to Daniel Hess of West Union, Iowa, who patented a device in 1860 he called a "carpet sweeper." In addition to a rotating sweeper brush, Hess' gizmo had an elaborate bellows system on top that generated suction, pulling air through two "water chambers" to capture dust and dirt. But there's no evidence his pioneering invention was ever produced commercially.

Other carpet sweepers, minus the suction feature, did reach the market. The best-known was invented by Melville Bissell in 1876, after his wife, Anna, complained about the sawdust in the Grand Rapids, Mich., crockery shop they owned. After her husband's death in 1889, Anna Bissell took over the company, becoming America's first female CEO.