Museum Matters

This vintage hand pump vacuum cleaner can be found in the general store exhibit at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum.

A hand pump vacuum cleaner found in the general store exhibit at the McMinn County Living Heritage Museum is one type of many that was invented in order to help the ladies clean their homes.

The device has two handles: One to hold onto it and the other to pump with. On the face is the name “The Columbia, Reimiller Sales Co., Columbus, O” with an Indian head logo centered on the canister. Above the label is embossed “patented, Dec. 26, 1911.” At the top of the canister is a “Guarantee” label advising the cleaner is “guaranteed against defects in workmanship for the period of one year from the date of purchase.” Another label advises to “oil through top holes.”

Little information could be collected of the Reimiller company while searching Ohio newspapers and our own local editions except through reading ads published across the country that appeared in local newspapers from Massachusetts to California soliciting people to become sales agents offering them the vacuum for a slightly cheaper price of $2.50 and in turn allowing them to sell it for $10.

One ad appearing in the Knoxville Journal and Tribune on April 6, 1913, announces that “The “Columbia Vacuum Cleaner will be demonstrated for the next two weeks to any lady desiring to become familiar with Columbia machine before purchasing, and be sure not to confuse the name with other cleaners.”

The ad was placed by a sales agent, C.R. Korh. Another ad in the same newspaper in January of 1914 announces to “Vacuum Cleaner Agents” that Knoxville is open territory for the Columbia hand cleaner. Sales agents set out to convince the household ladies that this was a tool to be desired.

A humorous story found in the Dayton Herald newspaper published in Dayton, Ohio on July 28, 1911, entitled “Vacuum Cleaners Put to the Test, the question: Do They Really Clean? Answered by Experiment,” By Helen Louise Johnson, tells about four ladies that had gone out for the evening only to come home to find that the oil lamp had burned high causing black soot to cover everything from curtains to the carpet.

The ladies had acquired a couple of different vacuums for a test and found this the best opportunity to see if the cleaner was worth the while. They found the pumping was tiring so they took turns during the process.

They noticed the results of their efforts immediately comparing the process to mowing grass: “A streak was made where we cleaned similar to one on the lawn when the mower cuts a strip of grass.”

They were able to clean everything, especially the carpet, which cleaned so well the nap was visible. They were exhausted when they finished and were pleased at what they found when they opened the canister. Inside, they found dirt and sand, including the fine “pulverized” street dirt that had ground into the fibers of the carpet; something the traditional broom would not have removed.

Our Columbia vacuum cleaner is a canister upright vacuum equipped with a handle to hold while you pump with another handle. It works much like a syringe as it draws dirt into the canister. Inside one of these canisters there is a cloth-type filter that traps the dirt within the canister. A video found on and posted by Turbo 360 demonstrates how one of these manual hand-pumped vacuums work. The particular model is similar to ours, but instead made by Great Northern Manufacturing Company in Chicago, Ill. The sound resembles suction cups walking along a smooth surface. The vacuum glides easily across the carpet while held by the wooden handle on the side of the device.

Sweeping was considered the hardest type of work for a woman according to an article found in an Ohio newspaper, The Greenville Democrat, on Sept. 2, 1914.

It said, “The vacuum cleaner sweeps and dusts at the same time.”

The article points out that the downside of having to hand pump the machine was that it was just as hard as sweeping; motorized vacuum cleaners were favored by this writer.

The first vacuum was called a carpet sweeper. It was invented in the 1860s and worked with a pair of spinning brushes and some bellows that created the needed suction to remove the dirt from the carpet. From the carpet sweeper, various types of manual vacuums were developed. The results were that carpets lasted longer with the dirt removed through vacuuming thus saving dollars spent in replacement.

The Columbia was noted as being lightweight and easy to use. It was also affordable but there were many types of vacuums to choose from manufactured by several different companies. By the 20th Century, women saw the introduction of the motorized vacuums, but it was not until after World War II that they were a common household tool.

Members of the Museum can tour all of the exhibits free of charge, while non-members pay a $5 fee. Senior adults and students pay an entrance fee of $3. Yearly membership to the Museum is $15 for seniors, $25 for adults, $10 for students and $45 for family. Currently, we have an exceptional Women’s Suffrage exhibit on display that will continue through the end of September.

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