Cleaning Essentials: Vacuums

Cleaning is usually the last thing on your list of things to do if you are anything like me. However, for historic house museums like Andalusia Farms, proper cleaning is crucial for these buildings upkeep. House museums work hard to maintain clean and preserved structures, because not only are the artifacts within the house historically significant but so is the house itself. In our curatorial collections, we have two vintage vacuums from the early to mid 20th century, when Flannery and Regina O’Connor would have been living in the farmhouse. We are proud to preserve these artifacts, as mundane as they may seem to others. Vacuums, while vastly underrated, continue to be essential to households, museums, and other businesses and buildings.

When many think about vacuums today, they think of the modern electric or battery-powered models used in nearly every household across the country. However, the first vacuums are a far cry from their modern counterparts today. The Air Way Sanitary System was an early model of the electric vacuum cleaner produced in the early 1900s. It resembles modern vacuum cleaners in that it’s an upright push vacuum with a simple motor, dust bag, and chord. This particular vacuum could also be used for better moth control in closets and wardrobes by allowing for the blowing of gas to protect cotton and wool clothing. The most outstanding piece of this vacuum was that it was the first model to incorporate a disposable bag for dust and dirt collection. Providing convenience to the user who no longer had to clean the cloth bags used in previous vacuum models.

Andalusia Collection: 2018.1.735 (top) 2018.1.736 (bottom)

The second model we have in our collections is a mid 20th century General Electric swivel top canister vacuum on wheels. Unlike its predecessors, this model has two main parts: the canister and motor, with a detachable hose that comes with tools for upholstery, carpet, and hardwood floors. At the time, some of these tools were new, purposefully designed to be more versatile for all areas of the home. The model in our possession that belonged to the O’Connors is mint green, a popular color in this era for households.  These vacuums allowed for a higher standard of living and making cleaning more accessible. Hoover was one of the vacuum companies that used sales associates to go door-to-door and show homeowners the perks of a new vacuum. However, this job was hard and unsuccessful; many either quit or let-go due to low numbers of sales within two months. Today the vacuum salesman is nearly obsolete with online shopping and big name brand stores.

There is one other vacuum at Andalusia that is not for household use. It is a Nilfisk Museum Vacuum Cleaner, specifically designed to keep museums clean while preserving textiles and carpets. House museums receive much more foot traffic than an average household would as its purpose to be open to the public. As a result, these houses experience more stress on the structures and require closer attention to cleaning processes. A manual for museum housekeeping explains, “visitors can quickly wear down floors and carpeting. . . Historic house museums were not designed for the amount of pedestrian traffic that occurs after a building is opened to visitors.”[1] Regular household vacuums do not have the same kind of filtering system as a Nilfisk, which includes a HEPA filter to capture the tiniest particles and prevents them from  releasing back into the air. Museum vacuums also have variable speed suction to allow for the appropriate suction to be applied, thus protecting the material.[4] While cleaning may seem an easy task, museum staff go to great lengths to maintain the care of items in the collection, particularly rugs and textiles. While house cleaning may not be some people’s favorite thing to do, it is a necessary in the museum world.

[1] Heaver, Melissa M. Housekeeping for Historic Homes and House Museums. Washington, DC: National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2004,

[2]“Nilfisk Museum Vacuum Cleaner with HEPA Filter,” Gaylord Online, Accessed June 1, 2020,

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