Vacuum Cleaners Before Electricity
Vacuum Cleaners Before Electricity—And A Little-Known Inventor
By Mary Robinson Sive*
W.H. Hoover’s oft-told success in making electric vacuum cleaners a household
necessity was of little use to the nearly 90% of American farm households without
electric service as late as the mid-1930s.
Yet a number of these more than five million homes owned vacuum
How could that be?
Generators may have powered some, but most
were operated manually.
devices they were not, but country women were eager to keep up with the modern
conveniences enjoyed by their city sisters, and so these cumbersome gadgets
found a market.
Their existence is not widely known, nor is
the role played by David T. Kenney, the holder of nine patents crucial to the
growth of the vacuum cleaner industry in the United States.
The person often credited with inventing
the vacuum cleaner—he did coin the term—is the English engineer Hubert
Cecil Booth (1871-1955).
Booth received a
patent for a device to suction dust in 1901, but his predecessors were
At least two dozen British and
American patents from the 1850s on as well as French and German ones sought to
mechanize cleaning, especially of carpets.
In the United States an 1858 patent for a carpet sweeper employed
This was followed by inventions
calling for a fan on wheels to blow dust into a container (#22,488, 1/4/59), or
hand-operated bellows sucking dust into water (#29,077, 7/10/60), or a
hand-cranked pulley arrangement creating suction (#91,145, 6/8/69.
Melvin Bissell patented his carpet sweeper
in 1876 (#182,346, 9/19/76); it has remained nearly unchanged.
In the 1890s American inventors proposed the
use of steam power for a “pneumatic sucker” suitable for either permanent
installation in a large building or placement on a moveable truck (#460,935,
10/6/91) and of gasoline for a machine designed for horse-drawn truck
A wheeled “truck”
to move a cleaner employing two alternating vacuum chambers from room to room
was envisaged by patent #614,832 (11/29/98).
And a Savannah woman, Corrine Dufour, received a patent for an “electric carpet sweeper and dust gatherer” whose
motor operated a suction-fan (#664,135, 12/18/00).
Figure 1. 1869 patent for a “sweeping machine”
Figure 2. 1900 patent for an “electric sweeper”
Booth’s 1901“Puffing Billy,” mounted on a
horse-drawn cart and driven first by an oil engine, later by an electrical
motor, saw its first use in February 1902.
Its use at the coronation of Edward VII later that year “so impress(ed)
the crowned heads of Europe that they all wanted a similar machine”
the street, its hoses extending through the windows of a building.
“After (Booth’s) equipment gained a Royal
Warrant of Appointment in 1902, society hostesses would hold parties to watch
his invention at work,” states the London Science Museum website in the legend
for Booth’s smaller 1906 “Trolley-Vac” (ingenious.org.uk/#101866637), an
electric model designed to be moved from room to room - not easily, though, as
it weighed 100 lbs.
employers, servants felt threatened by Booth’s invention, which caused him to
create advertising that presented the devices as helpers rather than usurpers
of servants’ jobs.
in Britain included the bellows-operated “Little Daisy” or “Baby Daisy” and
A machine on wheels was
used in France in 1903 (illustrated in Giedion, 587), and another type tested
in Germany in 1905 (Giedion, 589).
Booth had earlier designed engines for the
Royal Navy, factories, bridges, and large wheels, of which the one in Vienna survives (Biographical Dictionary of the History of
Technology; Dictionary of National Biography).
In his 60s he prepared a paper on “The origin
of the vacuum cleaner,” published in the Transactions
of the Newcomen Society, where he states that he was involved in 23 patent
infringement suits, in 19 of which he prevailed.
The British Library was able to identify four
cases, three of them won by his British Vacuum Cleaner Company (personal
communication, March 1, 2006).
Figure 3. David T. Kenney (Plainfield, NJ, 1900 Directory)
One of the legal issues Booth needed to
resolve was with the American inventor David T. Kenney.
Kenney, born in 1866, was apprenticed at age
15 to a plumber and, in 1891, began his own plumbing business in Plainfield, NJ,
where the 1900 Directory described him
as a “sanitary engineer” with offices at 72 Trinity Place, New York.
New York City directories show him in
business at this and other addresses from 1896 to 1908; after that year only
his companies’ names appear.
patents #566,771 and #613,802 in 1896 and 1898, respectively, for a
“Flushometer” (to flush toilets), advertised in the 1909 Thomas’ Register by the Kenney Manufacturing Company, 36 East 22nd
Street, New York.
This invention is said
to have made him wealthy (Plainfield Courier-News, July 16, 1956).
In 1901 he assigned
another water closet patent to someone else, possibly because his primary
interest now lay elsewhere.
A recent reference book (World of Invention) as well as other
sources dismiss Kenney as a “New Jersey plumber” (the source also gives Booth’s
first name as “Herbert”), but his work beginning in 1901 and the patents he
received between 1903 and 1913 created the foundation for the American vacuum
When the Vacuum
Cleaner Manufacturers’ Association was formed in 1919, its membership was
“confined exclusively to licensees under the Kenney patents.
The Kenney patents are the basic
vacuum-cleaner patents …” (FTC Report,
Though most vacuum cleaners by
that time were electric, they still depended on the vacuum through the opening
in the nozzle sealing contact with the carpet, the mechanism devised and
patented by Kenney.
Kenney’s 1901 application for an “Apparatus
for Removing Dust” on wheels was not granted until 1907 (#847,947 (3/19/07,
filed 11/29/01), but applications filed the following year did result in his
first patent, for a (dry) “Separator for apparatus for removing dust” in 1903
(#739,263, 9/15/03) and for a wet separator (dust deposited in water) in 1905
In 1902 he
installed a steam engine in the basement of the Frick Building in Pittsburgh
that had attached to it pipes and hoses reaching into each part of the
Kenney saw Booth’s apparatus demonstrated in 1903 and
purchased a unit the following year (Hoover Historical Center).
Booth had applied for a US patent in
Kenney’s five patent applications
filed from 1904 to 1906 provided for refinements on his 1903 patent such as improved
nozzles, implements suitable for uneven surfaces, an improved dry separator,
and a transparent chamber
Figure 4. “Two-ton Vacuum Cleaner” (reprint from Steelways, courtesy
St. Mary Archives)
the observation of dust deposited in water (Patents #781,532 (1/31/05, filed
1904), #826,513 (7/17/06, filed 2/21/06), #841,984 (1/22/07, filed 5/26/05),
#907,694 (12/22/08, filed 6/1/05),
#963,049 (7/5/10, filed 1/2/06).
Beginning with the 1906 patent, he assigned them to his Vacuum Cleaner
Booth withdrew his application
after Kenney received the long-awaited 1907 patent #847,947.
Kenney’s Vacuum Cleaner Company was briefly
in 1908 (New York Times, 5/16/08)
subsequently was party to several law suits.
A 1906 display ad in Theater Magazine by the Vacuum Cleaner Company (“David T. Kenney,
Pres’t”), reproduced in a history of
American housework (Strasser, 79), shows an electric central vacuum cleaning
system located in a home’s basement with hoses reaching into various rooms,
said to be in use in the White House, the Times Building, and elsewhere.
A similar ad also appeared in McClure’s Magazine and possibly
Kenney’s Jersey Vacuum
Cleaner Company, located at 129 Brunswick Street, Newark, continued offering
such installations as well as “portable service,” warning “Do not allow the use
of the dangerous broom!” (Mt. St. Mary
Dedication Program, 1908).
patent #1,057,347 (3/25/13, filed 6/6/06) demonstrates a man in uniform
apparently in the performance of such duties.
With the long waiting
periods that Kenney experienced during this decade, it is perhaps
understandable that he sought help from a higher source.
A prominent Catholic layman, he asked the
Sisters of Mercy to pray for him and then shared his success with the
Beginning in 1905 and continuing
until the end of his life, he donated land, eventually totaling over 70 acres,
for a school.
He was made a Papal
Chamberlain in 1906
(Somerset Messenger Gazette, August 1989; Mt. St. Mary, Watchung,
Kenney’s 1913 patent
The years preceding World War I saw a great
many patents granted in this country to other inventors for various kinds
“dust and rubbish suction machine,”
“dust-collectors,” and “dust-removing apparatus” and ”pneumatic
Vacuum apparatus, vacuum
cleaner for carpets, vacuum cleaning apparatus, vacuum cleaning device, vacuum
cleaning implement, vacuum cleaning machine, vacuum cleaning systems, vacuum
cleaning tool, vacuum dust-remover, vacuum pan, vacuum producing apparatus,
vacuum-producing device, vacuum-sweeper, and similar terms fill many columns in
annual indexes to patents granted during these years.
Both hand-powered and electric models, and
stationary and portable ones engaged inventors’ attention, but portable units
for home use were moving into the lead.
“Vacuum cleaners have become ordinary household implements in
substitution for, or in addition to the broom and duster, and small machines
are now made in a variety of forms, driven by hand, by foot, or by an electric
motor attached to the lighting circuit,” the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica concluded.
It is not known which of the many patents
listed under such terms actually became consumer items.
Only a fraction of all patents granted ever
result in actual products.
granted James Murray Spangler of Canton, OH, in 1908 (#889,823, 6/2/08 and
#1,151,731, 8/31/15) for combining a small electric motor with a cloth bag to
contain the suctioned dust certainly did.
He sold his invention to William Henry Hoover, who succeeded so wildly
that in the British Isles the household chore is known as “hoovering,” not
7. “Regina Pneumatic Cleaner”
Figures 8. “Regina Pneumatic Cleaner”
(courtesy Hanford Mills Museum, East Meredith, NY)
(patents 847,947 (1907) and 1,016,921 (1912))
Dozens of non-electric models under several dozen different
trademarks continued to appear on the scene along with electric ones, and
patents for manual devices continued to be granted.
Most manual cleaners required two
Suction was created by a
handle being moved back and forth (pump-type
cleaners) or bellows being compressed
activated by floor wheels (Hoover Historical Center).
Two alternating bellows were required
in order to create continuous suction.
A bellows cleaner operated by one person was
the model shown in use by the family in the “1900 House” feature shown on PBS
Others are illustrated in
But it was the plunger-type,
patented by Charles Boyer of Marengo, IL, in 1911 (#1,012,800, 12/26/11) that
was both light-weight and capable of operation by one person.
A piston pushed down and up the same tube
that ended in a nozzle created the needed suction, but only on the upward
stroke or 50% of the time.
of surviving manual vacuums are of this type.
9. 1911 patent for plunger vacuum
Figure 10. Plunger vacuum
cleaner (courtesy Anne Ruffner, Taylorsville, CA)
Attempts were made to use an operator’s feet as the power
source, leaving the hands free to handle the working end.
A “pneumatic dusting machine” was patented in
France in 1893, “equipped with bellows mounted to the (two) operators’ feet so
that a suction was created as the operators walked through the rooms being
cleaned” (Facts on File Encyclopedia of
Science, vol. 3, p. 1093), apparently similar to the “high-stepping
cleaner” described elsewhere.
Foot-operated Kotten (courtesy Hoover Historical Center)
In this country, an example is the 1910 Kotten,
manufactured in New Jersey, which required the operator to stand on a platform
and “rock from side to side like a teeter-totter,” activating two bellows”
In the 1914 Cyclone the bellows “worked by pressing and
releasing a foot-rest at the back” (Harrison, 29).
According to a Swiss source, a patent was
even granted that would have the operator sit and rock in a rocking chair to
the same end (der-profi.chi/hauswartung/ber-reinigung/VC/a_geschichte_VC)
Sears, Roebuck catalogs began offering portable manual
vacuum cleaners in the Fall 1909 catalog, and in the very next issue offered
customers a choice between the “Quick and Easy,” a plunger type weighing 5
lbs., an American reproduction of a French model, the “Dust Killer,” a
valve-and-piston pump type sold only by Sears with shipping weight of 50 lbs.,
or “Everybody’s Vacuum Cleaner,” featuring bellows or diaphragm action and
weighing 24 lbs.
Figure 14. 1909 Sears catalog
accompanying picture in the 1909 book showed a boy operating the pump while a
woman vacuums a carpet.
It was omitted
in later issues, where mention that the “Quick and Easy” required only one
person for its operation was the only hint that other models required two.
Customers may have been surprised that the
mail-order vacuum required the efforts of two persons.
An emphatic sales pitch “What a vacuum cleaner
in your home means to you” appeared in the Spring 1910 Sears catalog, reminding
readers that “You need a vacuum” to save time and labor and to promote
“Protect the health of your
family” had also been an admonition of Kenney’s Jersey Vacuum Cleaner Company.
Sears offered a money-back guarantee on the
three models advertised.
Thomas’ Register of American
Manufacturers listed more than 50 manufacturers under the heading
“Machinery-Cleaning-Vacuum,” including the Vacuum Cleaner Company at 427 Fifth
A display ad showing a woman
operating a Regina Pneumatic Cleaner (with both hands) advises that the model
is available “in two styles - one operated by hand, the other by electric
motor” (pp. 3265-66).
Company’s addresses are shown as 236 Marbridge Building, Broadway and 34th
Street, New York, and 218 Wabash Avenue, Chicago, its factory in Rahway,
It was assigned patent #1,016,921
(2/6/12) by its inventor, Henry Koch of Rahway, for a “Suction Cleaning
Figure 15. Henry
Koch of Rahway, NJ, assigned this patent to the Regina Company
that employed two suction pumps separated by a cloth dust collecting bag and
envisioned either manual or motorized operation
Several companies in 1911 attempted to fight Kenney’s
patents but in the end agreed to accept licenses at 2-1/2%.
Eleven firms formed a Vacuum Cleaner
Manufacturers Association in 1913.
and a similar attempt in 1916 failed to survive because not all Kenney
licensees were members.
In 1919 some 20
companies, representing manufacturers of both portable and stationary
equipment, formed a trade association limited to holders of Kenney patents (FTC Report, p. 4; Hoover Historical
The year 1914 may have been the peak year
for attracting entrepreneurs to the manufacture of the new invention.
That year’s listing in Thomas’ takes up almost an entire page and includes at least 18
firms that offer hand-operated cleaners among those specifying the method of
Two years later, their number
dwindled to eight.
advertised water-powered vacuum cleaners in 1914, only two in 1916.
The Water Power Vacuum Cleaner Company of
Buffalo in December 1911 had been granted use of the “WA-PO-VAC” trademark.
Scientific American in 1911 reported on a cleaner weighing only 22
lbs., where connection to a water faucet created the vacuum.
A few years earlier the magazine had
encouraged home handymen to construct a stationary system by following the
instructions for a “Home-Made Vacuum Cleaner” in Scientific American (99:320, 11/7/08).
Some 702,000 portable vacuum cleaners were
sold in 1919, most undoubtedly electric.
Their number increased the following year to 1,024,167 units and $35
An investigation by the Federal
Trade Commission completed in 1924 found that four companies (not named)
accounted for over half the industry’s dollar volume.
The Commission, charged with conducting an
inquiry into pricing and profits in the house furnishings industry, found rates
of return in the vacuum cleaner industry “very much higher than the average
rates of return … on house furnishings, domestic appliances …” due to it being
“a comparatively new device, the market for which is far from fully exploited
and was protected by patents with limited competition” (FTC Report, pp. 4-24).
Housekeeping magazine took notice of manual vacuum cleaners in 1910
(50:665-66, May 1910), wondering “Do vacuum cleaners clean?”
The answer was a qualified yes, but operating
the pump vacuum required two persons and was hard work, the magazine
Two years later, the director
of the Good Housekeeping Institute observed that a “hand cleaner” weighing 15
to 25 lbs. with either pump or wheel was “not for a delicate woman” and hardly
preferable to a carpet sweeper.
not tested the lighter (5 lbs.) piston type.
When the magazine considered vacuum
cleaners in 1917 only electric models were within its purview, and in 1921 the
question originally posed in 1910 received a definitive answer, when 554
readers returned a questionnaire, all of them giving vacuum cleaners
(presumably electric ones) a hearty endorsement.
At least one home economics text as late as
1922 acknowledged the existence of “hand machines,” described as “mostly of the
Some are combined
with the carpet sweeper … “ (Allen, 149).
Most texts only discussed electric models.
Pump cleaners were manufactured in the
United States until the 1920s (Strong Museum web site, Object Report 78.311;
viewed in 2005;) and plunger cleaners sold in the UK until the 1930s (Hardyment).
There is no way to calculate how many manual
cleaners were sold over the years by the more than 50 companies in business at
Sales data at any rate
only tell how many units were sold, and not to what extent they were used.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a fair
number that were purchased may themselves have gathered dust.
Older women who remember units in their farm
homes in the 1920s and 1930s don’t recall seeing them in use.
Booth’s name appears in the British Dictionary of National Biography as well
as in biographical reference works dealing with technology.
The vacuum cleaners he invented and
manufactured are held in London’s Science Museum.
Kenney’s name cannot be found in
corresponding American reference books, the Library of Congress’ “American
Memory,” or its Prints and Photographs Collection.
The reason may be that motors drove Booth’s
machines from the very beginning, while the manual machines that first used
Kenney’s patents found their market mainly in the countryside.
Kenney was a prototypical self-taught
American inventor, but he was also a controversial figure.
The largest assemblage of manual vacuum
cleaners is in the hands of a private collector, Robert Kautzman, who shows
models from more than a dozen different manufacturers, mainly plunger types, on
his website, vachunter.com.
a dozen manual models, including two British ones, are in the collection of the
Hoover Company’s museum in the founder’s boyhood home near its Canton, OH,
A retail store in
Portland, OR, keeps some 100 non-electric machines among its approximately 300
historic vacuum cleaners.
includes pump and bellows-type machines but is not actively maintained.
Local historical societies are more likely
to own these artifacts of early-20th-century rural America than are
Institution has a “Reeves Suction Sweeper” made in Milford, CT, in the
collections of the National Museum of American History.
It is a plunger-type as is the “Golden Rod”
Vacuum Cleaner, manufactured by Hugro Manufacturing Co. of Warsaw, IN, at the
Strong Museum in Rochester.
The New York
Historical Society’s “Pneu-Simplex Vacuum Cleaner,” made by O.S. Kendall and
Son of Worcester, MA, is a pump-type in wooden housing.
Its 1913 trademark registration (#90,715)
stated that it had been used since 1909.
Like David T. Kenney, Oliver S. Kendall began with sanitary
installations such as the “Dry Closet,” a device for burning human waste
patented in 1891 (#459,901) and assigned to him by its inventor.
Kenney died in 1922, a suicide.
His body was found on June 4 near Beacon, NY,
after he had been missing since about May 24.
He had been in ill health for some years and had recently lost his wife
and a sister.
As a prominent citizen, he
had served on various boards (Plainfield
Courier-News, 6/5/22; Somerset Messenger Gazette, August 1989).
He was said to have invented a “device for
throwing projectiles” during World War I.
In 1920 he obtained his last patent, for a heating system designed to
improve the distribution of heat from a wood-burning fireplace (#1,352,371,
The Vacuum Cleaner Co. last
showed up in the New York City directory for 1920/1921.
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Bellis, Mary. The History of Vacuum Cleaners.
“Booth, Hubert Cecil,” Biographical
Dictionary of the History of Technology. London: Routledge, 1996.
Cowan, Ruth Schwartz. More Work for
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The Cyber-Space Vacuum Cleaner Museum.
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Domestic Technology: A Chronology of Developments.
Boston: G.K.Hall, 1988
Facts on File Encyclopedia of Science, Technology and Society. New
York: Facts on File, 1999
Fort Qu’Appelle Museum, Saskatchewan.
Foy, Jessica H. & Thomas J. Schlereth. American
Home Life, 1880-1930: A Social History of Spaces and Services. Knoxville:
University of Tennessee, 1992.
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The Light of the Home: An Intimate View of the Lives of Women in
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Scientific American (various articles)
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Great Lives in History - David Kenney Father of the Vacuum Cleaner Industry
Vacuum Cleaner History (Infographic)
Mary Robinson Sive is a retired Editor for Social Sciences
at Greenwood Press (now Greenwood Publishing Group) and earlier was a librarian
in school and public libraries. Her book Lost Villages: Historic Driving Tours in the Catskills
(available from Hope Farm Press, Saugerties, NY) tells the history of an upstate New York county and its
communities through visits to local cemeteries. She has contributed travel articles to a regional magazine and is the author of books
and articles on topics in education and library service.
The Rural Electrification Administration was created in 1935, but it was not until after
the end of World War II that more than half of all farms were connected to the
electric grid. As late as 1940 fewer than a third of farms had such service while over 90% of urban and rural
non-farm households were connected.