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Get Sucked In With These 11 Facts About the History of the Vacuum Cleaner

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However you see the vacuum cleaner—as a futuristic mess-fixer, a source of clogged-filter-frustration, or just a great way to make dogs go completely insane—its hum has been a staple in homes for decades. Here’s everything you need to know about your carpet's best friend. 

1. THE EARLIEST CARPET-CLEANING MACHINES WERE HUMAN-POWERED. 

In 1869, Ives McGaffey patented a device that used a fan to blow air into a receptacle, but this wasn’t commercially successful. Seven years later, Melville and Anna Bissell patented the Bissell Carpet Sweeper, developed to keep the air in the couple’s crockery shop clean and assembled in part by the Bissells’ neighbors, who helped tie together bundles of hog bristles and added them to rollers. With no powered suction, these rolling bristles did all the work.

2. INNOVATORS PUMPED UP THE VACUUM. 

Inspired by the difficulty of removing dust from heavy Victorian rugs and carpets, a wave of inventors experimented with methods for bringing greater power to the war against dirt. From 1860 to the turn of the 20th century, numerous manual vacuum cleaners were patented and marketed with varying success. 

These manual devices involved cranks, levers, and other mechanisms for drawing in and trapping dust in cloth or water, and included such models as the Baby Daisy, which used bellows for suction and required two people to operate it, as well as the Kotten Vacuum Cleaner, upon which the user would stand and "rock from side to side like a teeter-totter, activating two bellows." 

3. “PUFFING BILLY,” THE FIRST POWER VACUUM, WAS HORSE-DRAWN ... 

In 1901, British engineer Hubert Cecil Booth invented the first powered vacuum cleaner, likely inspired by American inventor John S. Thurman’s “pneumatic carpet renovator,” which cleaned by blowing rather than drawing air. Booth’s “Puffing Billy” ran on gasoline and was towed around on a horse-drawn cart due to its massive size. It provided paid “Vacuum Cleaning” services via tubes snaked into the windows of homes or commercial buildings. 

4. ... AND HAD BRITISH ROYALTY FOR ITS CELEBRITY SPOKESPERSONS. 

In 1902, Booth and Billy were commissioned to clean Westminster Abbey before and after King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra’s coronations. A demonstration from Booth before the royal household so impressed Lord Chamberlain that he bought two of the devices for permanent use at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. 

5. CENTRALIZED, WHOLE-HOUSE VACUUM SYSTEMS APPEARED PRE-1900. 

In the late 19th century, a few (wealthy) homeowners installed the central vacuum cleaner’s first iteration, which involved a basement-installed bellows chamber and copper tubing leading to different rooms in a house. High costs and low effectiveness kept the central vacuum from taking hold as a viable cleaning option, until the development of flexible PVC piping in the 1960s allowed for more durable and effective in-room extensions. 

6. VACUUMS INSPIRED (AND WERE USED AS) HAIR DRYERS. 

In 1888, France native Alexandre F. Godefroy invented a large hood dryer for seated patrons. His device involved the rather basic technology of hooking it up to a furnace. In 1920, the first commercial hair dryers hit the market. These models took cues from evolving vacuum technology, while also employing heated coils, but hair dryers remained bulky and cumbersome until the 1950s.

Before this breakthrough, many owners of early portable vacuums would attach extensions not just to their vacuum’s fronts (the sucking end), but also to their rears, where suction-driven air was expelled. This switch enabled them to dry their ‘dos.

7. HOOVER HELPED THE VACUUM’S POPULARITY EXPLODE AFTER WORLD WAR II. 

Hubert Cecil Booth, the father of powered suction, introduced a “Goblin” portable vacuum model in the 1920s, but it was William Henry "Boss" Hoover whose company and products would shape 20th-century vacuuming. After buying the patent on the Electric Suction Sweeper—a device for easing asthma symptoms that was supposedly jerry-rigged from a Bissell sweeper, a fan motor, a broom handle, and a soapbox—from his wife’s cousin in 1908, Hoover developed the machine for improved home use through the 1930s. 

8. HENRY DREYFUSS MADE THE VACUUM STYLISH. 

Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss brought his aesthetic expertise to Hoover in the early ‘30s. He helped define the portable vacuum cleaner’s modern shape by covering up its exposed components with a smooth Bakelite hood (though this cover wasn’t given its signature red hue ‘til the ‘50s). With Dreyfuss’ insights and patents, the Hoover Suction Sweeper Company began marketing streamlined machines for the home starting in the late ‘30s, and, in the process, dragged the vacuum cleaner out of obscurity. Today, British vacuum users continue to call the act “hoovering,” regardless of a product’s brand. 

9. MIDDLE CLASS AMERICANS' FLOORS SUDDENLY GOT CLEANER. 

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Following World War II, the price of vacuums came down, but they were still significant investments. The new Hoover Model 150 sold for around $80 in 1937 (close to $1,300 today) and a similar vacuum was the same price in 1956 (closer to $800 in 2015). Even so, American expenditures on household appliances such as vacuums increased twelve-fold between 1945 and 1960 thanks to the booming growth of the middle class. 

10. THE FIRST ROBOTIC VACUUM CLEANER WAS NAMED FOR AN EXTINCT ARTHROPOD. 

When it debuted on the BBC’s “Tomorrow World” show in 1997, the discontinued Hammacher Schlemmer Electrolux Trilobite became the world’s first robotic vacuum cleaner. The gadget, which used ultrasonic sensors to navigate its way around floors, was named after an extinct arthropod that pored over the ocean’s floors seeking bits of nutrition to suck up. The robotic Trilobite was able to indicate when its bin was full and locate and dock at its charging station when the need arose, but the nature of its navigation system—designed to always keep an inch of distance between the bot and any object it might bonk into—meant that an owner’s floors were never fully cleaned. 

11. THE VACUUM IS STILL A STAPLE OF MODERN ART AND DESIGN. 

Thanks to Dreyfuss and countless other industrial designers, engineers, and inventors, the modern vacuum cleaner has served as a symbol of chic and functional modern styling for countless artists. Among Jeff Koons’ well-known works are seeming altars to (and installations of) Hoover Convertible and Shelton Wet/Dry vacuums, while Seattle artist Will Flannery crafts sculptures out of deconstructed vacuum parts. The Dutch artist Daan Roosegarde has even proposed to clean up Beijing’s soiled skies with his Smog system, only one of many futuristic visions for the noble, adaptable vacuum cleaner.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Art Lovers in England, Rejoice: France's Famous Bayeux Tapestry is Coming to the UK
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of France’s most prized national treasures, the Bayeux Tapestry, is officially heading to England for exhibition. The loan will mark the first time the fragile 11th century work has left France in nearly 1000 years, according to The Washington Post.

French president Emmanuel Macron announced news of the loan in mid-January, viewed by some as a gesture to smooth post-Brexit relations with Britain, ABC reports. The tapestry depicts the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, a historically important event replete with guts and glory.

Stretching for 210 feet, the Bayeux Tapestry’s nine embroidered panels tell the tale of Harold, Earl of Wessex, who swore an oath to support the right of William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne once King Edward (a.k.a. Edward the Confessor) died without an heir. But after Edward's funeral at Westminster Abbey, Harold breaks his oath to William so he could be crowned king instead. Believing he was the rightful ruler, William—today remembered as William the Conqueror—decides to wage war and ultimately defeats Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

The historical narrative has endured for centuries, but the tapestry's provenance has been lost to time. Experts think that the artwork may have been created in England, shortly after the Battle of Hastings, although it’s unclear who designed and embroidered the scenes. Its original owner, Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the half-brother of William the Conqueror, may have commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry. He became Earl of Kent after the Battle of Hastings, and this new title would have afforded him access to skilled artisans, The Guardian explains.

The Bayeux Tapestry is currently on display in the town of Bayeux in Normandy. It likely won’t leave France until 2020, after conservators ensure that it’s safe to move the artwork. According to The Telegraph, the tapestry might be be displayed at the British Museum in 2022.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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