Saturday, October 30, 2010

The 1915 Central Vacuum

Central vacuum systems in residences. You'd think they were invented probably sometime in the 50's or 60's right? Think again, dear reader.

When we moved to our house last Fall, I discovered some sort of contraption in the basement, hidden in a dark corner. It looked like some sort of generator or something. It evoked mental images of Thomas A. Edison. What was it? I found my flashlight and brushed a little dust off of the thing. The picture here is what I saw. "Arco Wand Vacuum Cleaner".

What the heck? A central vacuum system in a 1915 house? "No, surely it can't be original to the house," I thought.

I looked a little closer at the gizmo. On the motor, there was a data plate. What?!? The patent listed on the motor (made by the Wagner Electric Manufacturing Co., St. Louis, U.S.A.) had several dates, starting back as far as Sept. 11, '88. We're talking EIGHTEEN eighty-eight!

I looked around a little more and found a separate data plate for the vacuum itself. Check out that patent date: March 9, 1907. So this vacuum was as old as the house itself. I was amazed.

I was not about to even try to fire the thing up. It had several VERY scary electrical wires connected to it that looked quite original. NoThankYouVeryMuch, I did not need to see this thing in action. We'd just bought the house and I had no intention of blowing it up or burning it down. Or electrocuting myself.

As I studied the system, it finally dawned on me what those odd disks were on the baseboard of the main and second story hallways. They were the connection points where a vacuum hose could be attached. The hose attachment was nowhere to be found (tossed into the garbage many years ago, I would imagine), although there is a tiny little "closet" in the dining room that must have been built especially to store the hose. An old wire rack was hanging in the closet, which is probably what the hose would have been coiled around when it was put away.

Some History
I got online to see what I could find out about the Arco Wand, plus I looked around the house and figured out a few things:
  • The American Radiator Company (“ARCO”) manufactured the radiators and Arco Wand central vacuum system that were installed in this home when it was built in 1915. American Radiator also manufactured Ideal boilers, which likely was the brand of the boiler that was originally installed in the house. By the time we purchased the house in 2009, the original coal-fired boiler had long since been replace by a H.B. Smith natural gas boiler (probably some time in the early 1980’s). If boilers are "your thing", be sure to read the previous post entitled Bye-bye, Boiler.
  • The American Radiator Company eventually merged with Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company in 1929 to become what is now known as American Standard -- the company that makes sinks, toilets, bath tubs, and all sorts of plumbing fixtures.
  • Although there is actually still an Arco Wand company in existence today, it is mainly a commercial high-capacity vacuum company. It was likely sold off sometime after the American Standard company was formed.

So what do you do with a 95 year old vacuum?
In order to get things out of the way in the basement so we could have the central HVAC installed, I disconnected the vacuum and moved it to the garage. Perhaps I should say I fought the thing all the way to the garage. I'm guessing it weighs about 300 lbs. With the help of my petite-but-mighty wife, we wriggled it up onto a four-wheel furniture dolly and rolled it out to the garage. There it sat for a number of weeks while we tried to figure out what to do with the thing. If we couldn't come up with another home for it, we knew we'd have to take it to the scrap yard. It was just too big to keep around as a conversation piece.

Knowing that I am a Lover Of All Things Old, my wife started doing some online searches and making some phone calls to see if we could find a museum that would take it. After all, we're talking about a piece of history here. There weren't that many houses in 1915 that had a central vacuum (or perhaps even indoor plumbing, for that matter), and even fewer that still have such a thing in original condition. After a few dead-end contacts, she finally got ahold of a guy at the Vacuum Cleaner Museum in St. James, Missouri, which is a little over two hours from where we live. The phone conversation went something like this:

She: I have a central vacuum machine that I'd like to donate to your museum.
He: What can you tell me about it?
She: Well I don't really know much about it, but my husband does.
He: Do you know what brand it is? Do you know if it is a such-and-such brand or maybe an Arco Wand?
She: Yes! That's it -- it is an Arco Wand.
He: (quite excited) You have an Arco Wand?!? Oh my goodness! I've been looking for one of those for fifteen years!
She: That's great. We'd like to donate it, but we would need you to send someone to pick it up. It's very heavy.
He: Hmm, we don't get up to that way very often.
She: Well, if you really want it, you need to come pick it up within the next three weeks. Otherwise, we're going to have to take it to the scrap yard. It is out in our garage, and we need to get it out of the way.
He: (a little panicked) Wait! No! Don't scrap it! We'll come get it! You can't take it to the scrap yard -- you've got the Mona Lisa! No, please don't scrap it! We'll figure out some way to get a truck over to pick it up!

So a couple of weeks ago, they sent a truck to pick up the vacuum. The driver even called once she made it back to the museum to let me know the vacuum had arrived safely, and to thank us again for donating it. They tell us that they will restore it back to "like new" condition, so once they are finished, my wife and I plan to make a trip to St. James to check it out. It will be fun to see the vacuum looking all new and shiny again.

14 comments:

  1. Cool story, Mr. Museum Benefactor. I'm still scratching my head that this equipment was back in 1915. Amazing bit of history.

    Oh, and love the Mona Lisa quote.

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  2. It runs!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gakajz1nxB4

    Just needed a little bit of carbon brush work. Unfortunately there are some rust holes which bleed off quite a bit of suction, but that's a project for another day.

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  3. Wow this is absolutely amazing. My name is Tim and I am the forth generation from my family to work for what it is know known as American Vacuum Company. My great grandfather, also known as "Big Ralph" was an employee at the American Radiator Company when they were bought by Standard. He later went on to buy the vacuum division and renamed it American Vacuum Company. The family business has been located in the greater Chicago area since the early 20th century and to this day proudly produces the ARCO WAND brand vacuums.
    While we have expanded our reach to much larger vacuums, we have never forgotten what our company was built on and that is the ARCO WAND brand. While researching our company history, it is absolutely amazing to come across our vacuums that are over 100 years old. While we have no direct contact with some of our vacuums that are in museums, it is quite humbling to hear people at museums to get so excited for this piece of history. While this is a short notice I thought I would let you know that a ARCO is set to be restored on the show American Restoration on the History Channel. It is supposed to air May 13th and should be quite amazing to see something that old restored to working condition.

    If you have any further questions about us our our history don't hesitate to contact me at tim@americanvacuum.com

    Hope you can catch the show and thank you for posting this,

    Tim Person

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  4. Rick and his team restored one of these on wheels and it shown on History channel 11/21/2012 it was amazing.
    D.F.A.

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    1. Thanks for posting, Deanna! I wish I had been able to see that show.
      DJ

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  5. My house was built in 1915 and we also have one of these vacuums sitting in our basement. It looks very similar to the one pictured in this article. Any suggestions on what to do with it?

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    Replies
    1. Kellyn -- sorry for the delayed reply. I have a couple of suggestions. The first suggestion would be to contact the Vacuum Cleaner Museum in St. James, Missouri. They already have the vacuum we donated, but they might be interested in another one, or they may know of someone that would be interested in yours.

      My other suggestion would be to contact Tim Person, from the blog entry above dated May 6, 2011. His great grandfather bought the ARCO Wand brand many years ago. Tim might be interested in having your vacuum for his company's "archives". Tim's email is tim@americanvacuum.com

      I hope that helps!
      DJ

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  6. You had me at MONA LISA :-) This is really a rare find.Central vacuum machines are necessary in living a convenient life.It gives you more quality time to sepnd for your family,you wont catch allergens frm cleaning the accumulated dirt and dust over the week.It is a fact that people in the past valued their time and energy in the same way that the people in this present era does.That is one piece of evidence that central vacuum system stood is timeless.

    Maisie Hood

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  7. How is your restoration coming? We moved into a 1910 Craftsman home in Riverside, CA. After talking with the great grandson, we found out the house had a central vacuum originally (and solar water heating!). Hoping to find out more info on the early vacuums, I will contact Tim. thanks!!!! Mark F. Woods, Riverside, CA

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    1. Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your note on the blog! The house renovations are still proceeding, however at a glacier's pace. Working a full-time job and doing renovations is a very slow process. I feel badly that I haven't posted on the blog for so long. The actual work consumed all the time and energy that I was putting into blogging. Perhaps someday I'll feel like I have enough breathing room in my schedule to blog again.

      Take care,

      Douglas (aka "loveoldstuff")

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  9. have the exact same machine my new purchase.. still hooked up to the house and all connected lines. I have not turned it on. I do not want to discard it. I might even keep it in place, but I am sure my wife wants to dispose of it.

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  11. Crazy..I found out central vac watching the "Knick" a show about turn of century medicine on Cinemax..I woulda def guessed 50s or 60s and if u said it wasn't invented that early, I wouldn't of been surprised..I know a/c was same time area..not sure if central air is diff.

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