Keep Portland Weird – A Vacuum Cleaner Museum

Weird museums are my thing, so when we were planning our trip to Portland, Oregon and I learned they had a vacuum cleaner museum, I was all in. “Keep Portland Weird” had the opportunity to earn its stripes.

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Exploring Portland’s Central Eastside Neighborhood

Because of Portland’s Vacuum Cleaner Museum, we based ourselves in the up and coming Central Eastside neighborhood. We stayed at the wonderful Grand Stark Hotel (more about that later) and enjoyed the colorful shops and restaurants in the area.

But the Vacuum Cleaner Museum was our first stop.

As we walked the few blocks along Grand Avenue to the Vacuum Cleaner Museum, we passed some cool shops – one called “Rains” that features nothing but rainwear, including umbrellas, cool hats, galoshes, coats and bags. I was never so excited about a rainy day. We spent some serious time in a store called “What’s New.” It’s a furniture/home accessory store that features the work of regional crafts people. That’s the kind of stuff you’ll find in the Central Eastside.

The Vacuum Cleaner Museum is actually inside a store that sells, you guessed it, vacuum cleaners. Stark’s Vacuums is a family-owned business that has helped keep Portland clean since 1932. There are now ten Stark’s in Portland and around Oregon.

The History of Vacuum Cleaners

Vacuum cleaners are just one of those things we take for granted, right? But I like the story of how our ancestors created what we live with today. The first vacuum patent was issued in 1870 to a guy named Melvin Bissell. He suffered from allergies and was desperate for something to make his life better. I now have a Bissell carpet cleaner in my closet, but never considered that Bissell was a real person.

In 1899, in Britain, someone devised a horse-drawn vacuum that used compressed air instead of suction. I have no idea how something like that would have worked. Some used bellows to create suction. You think vacuuming is hard work now, think about pumping a hand held bellows to make it work. Or dragging these heavy metal things around the house. Looking at some of these contraptions, I immediately remembered the monstrosity my grandmother lugging around the house. She called them “carpet sweepers.”

The Vacuum Cleaner Museum has about 30 models on display, but more than 100 in storage. And I’m told that most of them work. The oldest in the collection dates to 1905.

If you’re a person who likes to consider how things work, this little display will work some brain cells. I just like thinking about how our society got to where we are today.

The Era of Modern Vacuum Cleaners

You know that scene in The Graduate where Mr. McGuire offers Dustin Hoffman advice for his future. “Plastics.” The Graduate was released in 1967 and in the 1970s is when vacuum cleaners became much lighter and much easier to move around the house. Manufacturers started using plastic. They also became much more generic and disposable, meaning they didn’t last as long. Rick Nye, the 25+ year employee of Stark’s that runs the Vacuum Cleaner Museum doesn’t have much good to say about that period.

But carpeting also changed around that time. It became thicker and often made from synthetic materials. So vacuum cleaners changed too.

Of course, I had to ask Rick what type of vacuum cleaner is the best. My husband and I have strong and varying opinions about cannister and uprights. I use what my mother always used and he thinks what his mother always used is the best.

Rick wasn’t going to get in the middle of a domestic discussion, but he did tell me that cannister vacuums do better on hard surfaces than uprights. Overall, amperage has nothing to do with the effectiveness of a vacuum cleaner. It’s all about having a big fan, good airflow and a good brush.

By this time, I was starting to get bored with the conversation. Discussing vacuum cleaners is the epitome of adulting, right? But some people get really excited about vacuum cleaners. Rick told us that there is a vacuum cleaner collectors club. They have conventions and everything. I don’t think we’ll be joining any time soon.

But we thanked Rick for his time, his information and his weird little museum. We had learned a thing or two, smiled a bit and left confident in the knowledge that this little museum contributes to Portland image as just a little weird.