Tom Gasko says he enjoys teaching the public about vacuum cleaners. This is just what he does as the curator of the Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Factory Outlet inSt. James, Mo., along historic Route 66. Tacony Manufacturing, which is located in the same building as the museum, is one of only three vacuum cleaner manufacturers left in the United States, along with Rainbow and Kirby. Tom and the Tacony Manufacturing executives originally conceived of the museum as a way to educate the company’s engineers on the history of vacuum designs. The public, however, was also interested in the museum, so Tacony Manufacturing decided to open it to the public in 2009.
In the museum, Gasko displays his collection of 608 vacuum cleaners fromeach decade of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He has refurbished each vacuum in the collection to be in working order. The machines are displayed in rooms based on the decade they are from, with décor from each time period. Original advertisements hang in each room and authentic owners’ manuals are displayed by the vacuum they describe, to help visitors understand the ideas of society at each point in the last hundred years of American history. Visitors can also purchase new, American-made vacuums for a reduced price.
Connie Douglas has worked with Tacony Manufacturing since 1997 and decided to become a museum docent when the museum first opened. As a tour guide of the vacuum museum, she credits Gasko with teaching her about vacuums throughout the century.
“Tom is our curator, he knows all the vacuum cleaner knowledge,” she says.
Gasko’s knowledge of the history of vacuum cleaners was apparent to representatives at Tacony Manufacturing after he left a comment on a Riccar dealers’ webpage about their new vacuum design that had already been produced three times throughout history. After sending pictures of his collection at the request of the company’s vice president and speaking with the company, Gasko brought his vacuum collection to Tacony Manufacturing to educate their engineers.
Although this was the birth of the vacuum museum, Gasko’s interest in vacuums began much earlier. Gasko said as a child, he was interested in anything that had a motor and was interested in learninghow that motor worked. He says hewas six when he first took apart his mother’s vacuum and his father taught him how to wire the machine. The summer before his senior year of high school, Gasko worked as a door-to-door vacuum salesman for Rainbow and earned enough money in three months to buy a brand-new Trans Am. After graduation, he worked this job again for six months before the company promoted him to training manager. In 1989, he opened his own vacuum repair shop in Festus, Mo., where he repaired different brands of vacuum cleaners and also sold Riccar vacuums. Throughout the 20 years Gasko owned the store, many of his customers expanded his collection by donating old vacuum cleaners from their basements or grandmas’ attics.
Gasko said he is interested specifically in vacuum cleaners because there are so many different models, and engineers have not yet decided upon the ultimate vacuum design.
As he has worked in vacuum repair, sales, and collecting, Gasko says hehas learned much about the anthropology of vacuum cleaners.
“A vacuum really has to fit the person who’s going to use it,” Gasko says. “The kind of vacuum that your mother had, that you grew up with, is going to pretty much predestine what kind you’re going to use.”
In addition, Gasko has found that men and women approach buying vacuum cleaners differently. Gasko said Tacony Manufacturing recently designed a camouflage vacuum cleaner, which they planned to market to men who came into the outlet store with their wives. Through selling the machine, Gasko has learned that more women buy the camouflage vacuum, which is $25 more expensive, while men buy the same vacuum in a solid color because it is cheaper.
“With women, the color is much more important than it is with men,” Gasko says. “Women pay attention to that.”
As evidenced in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s rooms of the museum, Gasko says vacuum cleaners were brown and black until the late 1940s. After World War II, people had extra money to spend and manufacturers weren’t limited to producing only war goods. In order to convince Americans to buy new vacuums, companies began designing vacuums that were different colors.
Today when new vacuums are designed, the marketing department chooses colors for the machines based on colors they predict will be popular three years in the future. This is because the company will manufacture the design for several years and the vacuums will also sit on a store shelf for a time. The color must still appear modern after this period of time in order to sell.
To choose colors, the marketing department of Tacony Manufacturing uses “color chips,” which are automotive paint samples printed on 8×11 pieces of paper. Gasko says purples, jade greens and ruby reds are the current colors Tacony paints their vacuums. The marketing department recently visited the 1950s room of the museum to gain color inspiration.
“Interestingly, the colors of the 1950s machines were inspired by the cars,” Gasko says. “That’s what’s modern again … Everything old becomes new again. So those are the colors we have now. We have pinks and turquoises.”
Gasko says that vacuum designs have been influenced by what is important to American society during each decade. The rooms of the museum, vacuums and original advertisements showcase this.
When giving a tour, Gasko points out that vacuums were originally designed for the functional purposes of making cleaning easier. They were also designed with health concerns in mind — the 1920 Airway Sanitary System’s bag was made to be burned after vacuuming to rid a home of tuberculosis germs that attached to the dust sucked into the vacuum.
After World War II, vacuum design became not only functional, but also aesthetically pleasing. Gasko says vacuums in the 1950s were influenced by car design — the Atlas Vacuum Cleaner even has tail fins and is candy apple red. In the 1960s, political influences in vacuum design become apparent, especially the Moon Race — one vacuum cleaner was named “The Constellation,” and Gasko says the Fairfax vacuum looked like a robot. In the 1970s, rakes were put onto the front of vacuum cleaners so they could pick up the shag carpet that was popular in order to get the dirt out. Gasko says people described vacuums and their colors as “groovy” and “mod.”
Phyllis Murphy of Rolla, Mo., a first-time visitor of the museum, said she enjoyed seeing the older items on display.
“It kind of brings back a lot of memories,” Murphy says. “The ’70s stuff I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember seeing some of that.’ And some of the ’60s, just a piece here and there … even the ’50s décor … Mom and Dad had a lot of older stuff around.”
Gasko says his favorite part of being the curator of the Vacuum Museum is on the tours when people see the vacuum their mother had when they were a child.
“It is really a great, fascinating job to be able to share the history of the machine with the public,” Gasko says. “It is fun to take that step back and be able to show people … where things came from and how things happen. And so that’s what I do.”
Address: #3 Industrial Drive
St. James, Missouri 65559
Phone Number: Toll free: (866)444-9004
Free tours of museum available during hours of operation: Monday-Saturday, 9AM-5PM; not open on holidays