‘Housekeeping ain’t no joke’ part 1 – The Spring Clean and Vacuum origins

Outside spring has definitely sprung, with the daffodils nodding their dazzling heads and the trees producing buds hinting of splendour yet to come. However, indoors things are afoot too, as houses across the land begin the age old spring clean.

The tradition of a ‘spring clean’ dates back millennia and is often linked to religious festivals. Members of the Jewish faith clean the home and remove breads made with yeast, which are forbidden during Passover in March or April, while the Catholic Church traditionally reserved the three days after Palm Sunday for a thorough house clean. In the Eastern Orthodox Church Great Lent begins with “Clean Week” and Iranian families celebrate Nowruz, also known as Persian New Year, on the first day of spring, by giving their houses a thorough clean and then filling them with fresh flowers.

On a practical note, before the delights of central heating, coal and wood fires may have kept occupants warm but they also created horrendous amounts of dust. Even further back in time floor rushes were simply added to over the winter months to prevent earthen floors becoming muddy, accumulating all the dirt and grime of the winter months, plus probably a few bugs too! Spring saw the weather turn warm enough to throw open the doors, sweep out the old and get everything out for an airing.

In larger households it was a major undertaking, with families vacating the premises to allow their servants to get on with the job. It had to be done to the highest standards too, one woman quoting in the Washington Post of 1864,

“Swept and dusted sitting-room and kitchen 350 times. Filled lamps 362 times. Swept and dusted chamber & stairs 40 times.” 

All that sweeping had us thinking about how much easier cleaning our houses is today. Not only do we have safer chemicals, cleaner heating and cooking methods but also a plethora of mechanical aids that practically do the work for us. One of the latest additions to the housekeeping arsenal is the ‘robot’ vac, literally sweeping our floors at the touch of a button. However, it was the Edwardian housewife who first reaped the benefits new vacuum inventions, although her experiences were a little different to ours!

Back in London 1901, you may have stumbled across the startling revolutionary street scene of Hubert Cecil Booth putting to work his new vacuum cleaner in the wealthier houses of the city.

Booth’s horse drawn machine

No small cylindrical machine to be whisked up and down stairs, his vacuums, nicknamed the ‘Puffing’ Billies’, were horse-drawn, petrol-driven contraptions the size of a milk float, which took four to six people to operate. The machine stood outside on the street and long hoses were fed through windows, the motor started and air was drawn by suction from the hose and nozzles through a filter. Onlookers were encouraged and the dust collected in a glass chamber on the side of the machine to illustrate the amazing job the machine was doing; a cunning marketing ploy to further orders for the service.

The lady of the house would even throw ‘vacuuming parties’, inviting friends to come and take tea whilst Booth’s assistants worked the magic of the hoses around their feet.

The cost of a large house being cleaned was around 13 pounds, which equated roughly to the annual wage of a scullery maid.

Manual options did become available for those who could not afford Booth’s fees and in 1905 local manufacturer, Walter Griffiths of Birmingham, patented the ‘Griffith’s Improved Vacuum Apparatus for Removing Dust from Carpets’. This was a portable and easy to store vacuum device which only took ‘any one person (such as the ordinary domestic servant)’ to use. The vacuum was operated by compressing a bellow type contraption to suck up dust via a removable, flexible, pipe to which a variety of shaped nozzles could be attached. Another early example is the Harvey cleaner, an almost identical model to which sits in the Edwardian kitchen at Winterbourne today.

Winterbourne’s unbranded early vacuum on left with the Harvey model, showing the hose attached, on the right

However, it is now acknowledged that Booth started the vacuum revolution and the basic technology and the suction principle of his machine was the same as in modern vacuum cleaners. His business, The British Vacuum Cleaner and Engineering Company (BVC) went on to introduce the famous Goblin portable cleaner in 1926 and still manufactures industrial vacuums today.

In 1908 the first motor-driven vacuum which could be used easily by an individual in the home, was invented by American, James Murray Spangler. It had motor-driven fan blades to create suction, a broom handle and pillow case to collect the dust. He sold his patent to his cousin, William Hoover, and the rest, as they say, is history.

James Spangler and an early refined model of his ‘Suction sweeper’

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