Surprise Suction Sweeper Artifact Highlight #54

This small vacuum was donated to our collection in 1951. It is a Surprise Suction Sweeper manufactured by the Import and Export Company from New York around 1908.

It is made of metal with a wooden handle at the top of the canister that was moved up and down like a plunger.

The suction caused by plunging sucked the air in and pushed it out, trapping the dirt and the dust in the canister.

The bottom of the vacuum has a nozzle head with a narrow slit and could be used on different types of flooring, carpet, and upholstery.

Carpet cleaning, as most of the housework, was not an easy task in the 19th century. Prior to the introduction of vacuums, most housewives used brooms and dust pans to clean floors and carpets. Many of the Victorian homes had large and small rugs and carpets to cover poor quality, soft wood floors. Large rugs became a staple in the upper-middle class American homes.

1890s Power Loom. Public Domain

By 1870, there were 215 carpet mills that wove more than 20 million square yards of carpet annually.

Los Angeles Herald, February 26, 1909

Cleaning and caring for the home took a lot of time and many Victorian women turned to domestic economy handbooks for time-saving tips. One of the most popular was Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 1861, with very interesting, if not unusual, tips on carpet maintenance:

Illustration from Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management, 1907. Public Domain

“Take a pail of cold water and add to it three gills (teacups) of ox-gall (contents of ox’s gallbladder). Rub it into the carpet with a soft brush. It will raise a lather, which must be washed off with clear water. Rub dry with clean cloth. In nailing down a carpet after the floor has been washed, be certain that the floor is quite dry, or the nails will rust and injure the carpet. Fuller’s earth is used for cleaning carpets, and weak solution of alum or soda are used for reviving the colors. The crumb of a hot wheaten loaf rubbed over the carpet has been found effective.”

Norwich Bulletin. June 11, 1909

The earliest carpet cleaning machines were hand pumped. The first vacuum sweeper was produced in Iowa by Daniel Hess in 1860. The machine had a rotating brush and a bellows mechanism to generate suction. Some manually operated models required two persons to function: one to operate the bellows and one to move the mouthpiece over the carpet. Great advances in science and medicine during the 19th century had a major impact on understanding health and disease. Cleanliness and hygiene became key components of Victorian life and offered manufacturers a new “scientific” tool. The portable vacuum cleaner was represented as the only modern way to clean the house and led to the invention of the first motorized vacuum cleaner in 1899 and the first electric vacuum cleaner in 1901.

The vacuum was donated by Dorothy Perry (Mrs. George N. Perry) of Newcastle. Her donation was mentioned in the Colfax Record.

Colfax Record, October 12, 1951