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The Flat Cap on ... Vacuum Cleaners

Today The Flat Cap has been busy doing a spot of housework, including running the vacuum cleaner over his bedroom carpets. Although he doesn’t much enjoy cleaning he’s happy to concede that it’s a necessary chore; and one that The Flat Cap takes quite seriously. Fortunately there are a few different attachments on the modern vacuum cleaner so it’s never been easier to reach into those hard to access places where dust can collect. But it wasn’t always quite so each to clean around the house as The Flat Cap discovered when he decided to find out more about the history of this humble domestic household appliance.

The first motorised vacuum cleaner was invented by a chap called Hubert Cecil Booth and was nicknamed a “Puffing Billy”. When The Flat Cap used to play football for his local Sunday league team, “The Fox and Ferret” public house, the centre half was also called Puffing Billy. This was on account of the footballer’s size and lack of physical fitness. Billy would compensate for his lack of pace by kicking opposing players - whenever he could get near them, and was often booked or sent off by referees. He had however been one of the founding members of the team so he was an automatic choice (barring suspensions) until the pub finally closed in 2002. Today the pub is an Indian restaurant and on Sunday afternoons it serves an all you can eat buffet for only £11.95 per person. The Flat Cap thinks this is very good value, and so he sometimes goes for a meal there rather than cooking Sunday dinner.

The Puffing Billy vacuum cleaner, similar to its footballing equivalent, was large and cumbersome. Unlike today’s machines it was petrol driven and so big that it had to be transported by horse and carriage. Fortunately for home owners the horses stayed outside the property whilst big long tubes were passed into the house to suck up the dirt. The carpets of Westminster Abbey were cleaned this way prior to Edward Vll’s coronation in 1902. As well as churches it was also used to clean shops, theatres and the stately homes of the rich and famous. Ironically this horse drawn contraption was so noisy that people complained loudly and Mr. Booth was even fined for his noise nuisance. Today you can still receive royal patronage if you’re able to invent a decent vacuum cleaner, and this is how James Dyson got his knighthood. Luckily for Sir James his vacuum cleaners are fairly quiet and he’s never been fined for anything.

It was a sixty year old asthmatic Ohio janitor, James Murray Spangler who gave the world its next vacuum cleaning breakthrough. Fed up with the long hours it took to clean the department store where he worked he decided to revolutionise household cleaning. Armed with a few broom handles, some old pillowcases, and several brushes that he had taken out of carpet sweepers, and a supply of electric motors Spangler spent all his money on developing an upright cleaner. The bad news was that all this expense almost led him to lose his house. The good news however was that he had a cousin called Susan Hoover and she convinced her husband Henry Hoover to buy the patents. More than a century later everyone knows the name and The Flat Cap still says he’s “doing the hoovering” despite having bought himself a Dyson. The Flat Cap gave his old Hoover machine to a local charity shop. Charity shops are great because you can usually buy pre-owned jigsaw puzzles from them for as little as a pound; and mostly they still have the majority of pieces, and sometimes all of them.

As well as household vacuum cleaners you can pretty much use a vacuum to suck up any old shit - literally. Vacuum trucks are a prime example and are used extensively in the oil industry to clean out storage tanks and suck up spills. Best (or worst) of all they’re also used to suck up the waste from aeroplane toilets and septic tanks. For example in the Indian City of Bangalore it is estimated there are over 200 trucks which, for a charge, will call round and empty your septic tank. Then after three months of composting the truckload of old shite is sold to help cultivate banana or coconut trees. Whilst The Flat Cap approves of such recycling he now avoids buying bananas with any of those ‘organically grown’ stickers on them.

To see what was new in the world of vacuum cleaners The Flat Cap took a trip to his local branch of Currys where a store assistant called David volunteered the following facts and trivia:

  • As well as writing film scores English composer Sir Malcolm Arnold also wrote A Grand, Grand Overture for 3 Vacuum Cleaners, 1 Floor Polisher, 4 Rifles and Orchestra

  • On average, people replace their vacuum cleaner once every six years

  • In order to combat the effects of climate change the European Union introduced rules to limit the size of the motors in vacuum cleaners

  • In Tudor England there were no vacuum trucks so the emptying of cesspits was done by a group of workers known as “gong farmers”. Because people didn’t like to look at the contents of latrines, gong farmers were only allowed to work at night, if they didn’t die of asphyxiation first

  • Former Queen singer Freddie Mercury used to routinely dress up as a woman whilst doing his cleaning. At the suggestion of fellow band members he agreed they could film him for inclusion in the band’s music video “I want to break free”

  • To personalise your vacuum cleaner just paint on a smiley, or buy one of the Henry Hoover range of vacuum cleaners, They all have smiley faces as standard

  • James Dyson built over 5,000 prototypes before coming up with his bag-less vacuum cleaner. The machine was called the “G-Force” and cost £2,000. They are now collectors items

  • James Brown (no relation to the soul singing legend) runs a vacuum cleaner shop and museum in Heanor, Derbyshire. He has such a huge collection of cleaners that he sometimes loans out his exhibits for use in films, or period television dramas. James is single

  • In 2011 a vacuum cleaner was invented that was made from cardboard

  • There is a vacuum cleaner collectors club in the USA which hosts cleaning competitions and other fun activities

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