We're drawn to vintage vacuums

Nature supposedly abhors a vacuum. Some days, so do I. Perhaps my love-hate relationship with vacuum cleaners stems from the fact that I've always been, uh, drawn to secondhand models. The four machines currently in my possession aren't merely pre-owned; they're antique wannabes. Deficient in some respects, adequate in others, they seem to mimic my own ambivalence toward cleaning. Yet by combining our efforts, we get the job done.

When Ken and I purchased our home 14 years ago, we needed something more efficacious for the parlor's wood floor than our two old uprights' hard-surface attachments, which were maddeningly prone to detachment.

Ken visited the local vacuum emporium and soon returned lugging a boxy, bright-orange, circa-1970 canister model, complete with a complimentary bag and a holster for what I call "the slurping nozzle," mounted on the machine like a homely hood ornament. Like our vintage uprights, Big Orange still earns its keep today, although this trio's combined age probably adds up to more than a century - the age of the invention itself.

Somewhere along the way, I also purchased an inexpensive hand-held unit for upholstery. I got what I paid for. Reminiscent of grown offspring who screen their calls, this vacuum must be constantly coaxed to pick up, already.

After three futile passes, I'll pause, pluck the popcorn hulls off the sofa, and force-feed them to this hand-held vacuum. While it's only marginally more helpful around the house than the two cats it's supposed to clean up after, I'll admit that merely switching it on can remove felines from furniture in a nanosecond.

Vacuuming is traditionally considered a woman's domain, or so suggests the old joke about how husbands "help" with this task primarily by lifting their feet. But this stereotype bears scrutiny. After all, it was a man, British bridge builder Hubert Cecil Booth, who patented that first vacuum 101 years ago.

An item I stumbled across on the Dull Men's Club website describes Hubert's attempt to demonstrate, during an experiment in a London restaurant, that a vacuum cleaner should suck, not blow: "He had put his handkerchief on a plush chair, put his lips against it, and breathed in, with near-fatal results - he almost choked to death."

More than a century later, the man of my house actually seems intrigued by our vacuums. (Old though they are, they're undoubtedly an improvement on Booth's horse-drawn, gas-fueled piston prototype.)

However, unlike Hubert, I suspect that my husband is beguiled less by their function than by their vehicular qualities: their four (wheels) on the floor, their loud motors, their rattling chassis, their penchant for burning rubber. One of our uprights even has a headlight. It's self-propelled and raring to go ... with or without its operator.

Unsatisfied with basic vacuuming, it seems bent on playing bumper car with the baseboards. A hand-me-down from my mother-in-law, herself a high-strung homemaker, this upright is so uptight it requires Type A replacement bags.

(In contrast, I must drag Big Orange along by its hose, balking and whining all the way, and I do mean both of us.)

The older of our two uprights, acquired at a garage sale during my college days, is the vacuum analog of an SUV. It weighs, as Ken is wont to say, a living ton. I didn't realize how heavy it was until I recently test-drove a new, high-tech vacuum so light that it could be lifted with a forefinger. (I told the salesman I was holding out for a model that wouldn't require me to lift a finger at all.)

For all its drawbacks, our leaden clunker gets great traction on spots that those new Holly Golightly contraptions might gloss right over. I know my vacuum is earning its keep when I must pull it off an area rug like a bloodhound off a T-bone.

I've been in homes where every room has a duct that channels dirt into a central receptacle. Again, I'm not impressed; our forced-air-heat intake vents perform a similar function at a fraction of the cost. Ken simply changes the furnace filter with great frequency.

But what finally convinced me to stick with our tag team of semi-obsolete models - for better or worse, to adore and abhor - was the newfangled vacuum I saw on TV, equipped with a bagless, clear plexiglass canister so users can see the grit level rising inside.

Why would I buy such a thing? If I want to watch dirt accumulate, I'll stop vacuuming, period.

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