Vacuum cleaner collectors pick up friendships, admire quality
Yes indeed, I really am a member in good standing of the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors' Club (VCCC).
And, yes, I did just return to St. Louis from our five-day annual convention. This year it was in Canton, Ohio.
The attendance at the Canton convention was a record high - nearly 100 participants from all over the United States and Canada as well as two dedicated members from the UK. The display tables that lined a banquet room reserved for our use were quickly filled with cleaners, ranging from the oldest of Hoovers, the model "O" from 1908, to the newest offerings from manufacturers such as of Kirby, Miele and Sebo.
The membership is, quite by chance, almost entirely male; and members range in age from 6 years old through advanced adulthood, including just about every background one could think of. The one female member I know of is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector from Milwaukee, Wisc. Deep friendships develop at meetings and are sustained throughout the year via regional "mini-meets." We have an interactive club website, www.vacuumland.org , literally and figuratively closely linked to our sister site, www.automaticwasher.org .
Why did we converge on Canton? North Canton, immediately adjacent to Canton, was the home to the now-defunct Hoover Co. Aug. 8, 2008, was the exact 100th anniversary of the commercial production of the first Hoover "Electric Suction Sweeper," the Model "O." The Hoover Historical Center, housed in a mid-19th century house and outbuildings once owned by the Hoover family, threw a party on the birthday for about 600 former employees, community leaders, Hoover family members and our group.
Vacuums and friendships
This anecdote touches on the character of our community:
A mother and daughter showed up at the convention in Canton. The adult daughter is from New York City. Her mother is from Wheeling, W.Va. Neither collects vacuums. They came to the convention because a neighbor and friend of the daughter, a man who was a member of the club but never attended a convention, recently died. Not only were these two travelers strangers to us, but no club member in attendance had ever met or communicated with their late friend.
At the final banquet, the daughter was called to the podium to speak. Her mother stood by her side for moral support.
Many years ago, when the daughter first moved to New York, she was young, alone and faced with building a life and household from the ground up. A knock came to the door of her new, empty and disheveled apartment. It was our not-then-yet member, vacuum cleaner in hand. He introduced himself to her as her upstairs neighbor. He said he believed in doing, not asking, and he was certain her apartment needed a good cleaning. He knew too that she wouldn't have her own vacuum.
This generous, if offbeat start led to a grand, decades-long friendship encompassing daughter, mother and vacuum-wielding neighbor. Later on, poetically and symmetrically, the daughter climbed the stairs regularly as her friend's illness took its toll, and she vacuumed his apartment when he was too sick to do so himself. She and her mother saw their attendance at Canton as a memorial to a lost friend who had hoped to be able to attend. We gave them a standing ovation and honorary memberships in the VCCC.
It was good to celebrate the birth of a fine, durable, well-designed, serviceable product. Nevertheless, a mile to the west down Maple Street, the Hoover factory and headquarters stands utterly empty, cold and silent as a tomb. Once, it was a city unto itself with some 2,000 employees, its own power plant, a foundry and an infirmary, auditoriums and dining hall. Today, the hardwood floors that stood up to 90-plus years of round-the-clock manufacturing have begun to heave up in places from the neglect of having spent just one unattended, unheated winter.
Where assembly lines and workstations once hummed with productivity, an aimless footfall sends derelict, seed-small steel ball bearings skittering across the floorboards. These were the key component of motor and agitator bearings that were assembled here. Former employees, some with as many as 45 years of experience with the company, took us around. Their vivid descriptions and reminiscences, though wistful, breathed an echo of life back into the factory floors, the executive offices, the engineering labs and boiler rooms. They remembered a time more than half a century ago when the Hoover family saw to it that the children of its British employees were brought to Ohio for the duration of World War II. Hoover employees in North Canton took them in.
I don't claim to understand all of the economic forces that led to Hoover's demise. I do know that a product line of long-lived, beautiful machines, so reliable and such a pleasure to use has simply vanished. It was, in its heyday, designed and built with pride by a community of loyal and dedicated people.
The products that carry the Hoover name now have nothing in common with the machines created and produced in North Canton and other Hoover factories around the world - factories that now stand empty as well.
Although the demise of Hoover indicates a fundamental change in American manufacturing (if not in American life) there is, in the real and metaphorical world of the vacuum cleaner, reason for celebration and for hope.
About 60 miles north of Canton in Cleveland, the Kirby Co. thrives. Collector club members regrouped there for a tour. Happily for us, the premium quality "Sanitation System" offered by Kirby since 1914 remains a beautifully engineered and exceptionally solidly built machine. It functions primarily as an upright vacuum cleaner, but quickly can be converted into, a portable vacuum with a hose, a floor polisher and a carpet shampooer.
What's more, Kirby's unique "Rebuild Program," available to original purchasers of machines of any age, provides for a set price, the restoration of Kirby cleaners to like-new condition. With proof of original purchase, a model 505 from 1945 can be rebuilt for $10!
The Kirby factory produces hundreds of new machines every day. Although sales are faltering here in the United States, they are steadily increasing overseas. We were told that Russia, the Emirates and the United Kingdom are particularly strong markets.
The manufacturing process is a monument to computerized efficiency, ergonomic refinement, quality control, product safety testing and worker safety.
Beneath these computerized production lines and ergonomic work stations lay twins to the well worn hardwood floors and 90-year-old window-walls at the empty Hoover factory in North Canton.
One can only hope the Kirby community can be as long lived as their products.
In addition to collecting, restoring and promoting vintageappliances, especially Hoover vacuum cleaners, Martin Kaplan is officemanager of the St. Louis Beacon. You can reach Kaplan by contacting features and commentary editor Donna Korando.