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Hubert Cecil Booth vacuumed the red carpet for Edward VII’s coronation

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Royalty on Monday, 23 April 2012

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This edited article about Hubert Cecil Booth originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 693 published on 26 April 1975.

Booth's vacuum service, picture, image, illustration

Hubert Cecil Booth’s vacuum cleaning service

If, in the past, events had turned out differently, all vacuum cleaners nowadays would be called booths. Of course, no one would deny clever Mr. Hoover’s right to his fame but the real pioneer was Hubert Cecil Booth.

A mere 75 years ago, spring-cleaning was a yearly nightmare for house-owners and maids alike, but especially the latter who had to do the dirty work. The bright sun showed up acres of dust, layer upon layer of it around the house, and all was confusion as carpets were beaten and dusters and brushes wielded. As if there was not enough smoke in the sky above every town and city, clouds of dust filled the air.

And what was the result of this time of torment? Most of the dust simply settled again, a dirty fact of Victorian life. Carpets, heavy curtains and chairs were ingrained with dirt, for there was no real cleaning aid. Spring-cleaning merely shifted dirt from one place to another.

Enter Mr. Booth, a bridge-building engineer by trade. Hating the upheaval that spring-cleaning caused in his own house, he found himself in the Empire Music Hall in London. On stage was an American inventor, who was demonstrating his new dust remover, a box with a compressed air bag on top of it. Down went the air onto a carpet and made some of the dust blow into the box, but most of it descended onto the carpet again. When Booth met the inventor, he asked: “Why don’t you suck out the dust?” to which the annoyed American wrathfully replied that it had been tried and it had failed.

Booth started thinking. One day he was at St. Pancras Station watching another compressed air machine trying to clean a carriage. The result was a dust-storm, after which he and the other invited observers went off to a restaurant.

They began talking about the fiasco when Booth suddenly said: “I believe that the answer is to suck the dirt into a receptacle instead of trying to blow it away.” Then he took out his clean handkerchief, put it over the back of his seat, placed his lips to it, and sucked, as the onlookers prepared to sneer.

He nearly choked, but the result was a triumph. A ring of black spots stained the handkerchief, and a few months later, in 1902, he had built a machine and announced to the world that the Vacuum Cleaner Co. Ltd. had been formed.

Forget the vacuum in your cupboard under the stairs. This was a horse-drawn affair: a pump, dust filler and power unit, which needed a garage.

Not many houses then had electricity, and no one could be expected to buy such a big and expensive machine, so it toured the streets on its van and stopped outside the customers’ houses. These early vacuum cleaners had hoses 800 feet long so could “do” several houses at once. Through the first floor windows, went the hoses, then the petrol or electrically driven pump burst into life, while operatives inside attacked chairs, carpets, curtains, etc.

The din was appalling. Apart from the noise of the infernal machine, children yelled with glee, housemaids had hysterics and cab-horses went berserk. Poor Booth was often sued in the early days, especially by cab-owners, but the Law upheld his right to work.

His biggest breakthrough came early, for just before the Coronation of King Edward VII in 1902, it was found that the blue carpet beneath the thrones was filthy. The word went out: “Send for Booth! Only he can save us.” So into the Abbey went Booth and his operatives and hoses and the result was a triumph. When the King and Queen heard what had happened, they demanded a Command Performance and were so delighted that they bought one cleaner for the Palace and another for Windsor.

Soon Vacuum Cleaner parties were all the rage in Society, with hostesses hiring Vacuum Cleaner Cooperatives to clean while their guests sipped tea. Always a showman, Booth added inspection tubes to his equipment so that ladies could actually see the dirt being sucked into the machine.

In 1905, a portable electric vacuum cleaner was introduced in America, and Booth soon followed with a lighter model. Meanwhile, a harness-maker named Spangler invented the first upright model in America and was bought up by W. H. Hoover, who marketed it in 1908 at only 70 dollars. Which is the end of our story, except to lament that Spangler’s name, like Booth’s has been forgotten. Otherwise we could say: “Have you boothed the sitting-room today?” The reply being: “No, I’ve spanglered it.” As for Mr. Hoover, his name just keeps rolling along, like his machines.

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