We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tom Gasko, curator of the Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Factory Outlet in Saint James, Missouri. Tom has years of experience with vacuum cleaners and has had the opportunity to work with the likes of Rainbow, Kirby, Electrolux and Filter Queen. He has also provided design input to manufacturers and even has a vacuum series named after him!
Tom has seen all sides of the industry and has been involved in vacuum cleaner design, sales, repair and collection. His vacuum cleaner collection is comprised of a staggering 800+ machines and includes some of the most interesting and important vacuums manufactured over the past 100 years. We were excited to ask Tom some questions...
Can you tell us how you became fascinated with vacuum cleaners?
I became fascinated with vacuums at a very early age. There are a huge number of children who are fascinated with cleaners from about the age of 3 till about 6 or 7. At first, kids are scared of the big, loud machine. But soon they want to 'help' mother by pushing the sweeper. Eventually, they want to 'clean' with it - and they love the brightly colored vacuum cleaner section at stores. Finally, most grow out of the vacuum phase and into another. I simply never outgrew it.
When visiting my mother's friends with her, at a very early age, I entertained myself by finding the vacuum closet, and playing with the machine (checking how full the bag was, etc.). Many of my mother's friends allowed me to run it.
I am also interested in these machines because they are constantly changing. Unlike something like clothes dryers, the final design of the vacuum has not been achieved. There are so many types and styles - plus the influence of the door to door sales approach to selling cleaners tends to polarize people as to what 'the best' is.
What vacuum companies have you worked for and what were they like?
I sold Rainbow vacuums for quite a while, between 1980 and 1984. I trained people on what to say and do in the home to close the sale. I very briefly sold Kirby Heritage II models as well as Electrolux Diamond Jubilee models. I found the going quite hard compared to Rainbow, and therefore returned to Rainbow cleaners. I also tried Filter Queen for one week, but I found that with no water there was no sale.
Why did you decide to start a vacuum cleaner museum?
Tacony Corporation's* executives and engineering staff met with me at my vacuum cleaner sales/repair show about 9 years ago. They were looking for my advice on improving a particular model. I was asked to make my vast collection available to the Engineering Department for reference during design, and one thing led to another. The Tacony Manufacturing facility had an unused storm shelter, big enough to hold the employees during bad weather. This was turned into the Vacuum Cleaner Museum after putting up vignettes (rooms) from each decade of vacuum cleaner production, as well as period advertising, colors, carpets, and furniture – in addition to the machines themselves. The Museum gets thousands of visitors per year, but is ALSO still used for its original purpose of aiding Engineering in the design phases of new models - essentially "Cherry Picking" the best of the past to make better machines for the future.
*Tacony Corporation is a 70 year old American company that employs over 650 people. They manufacture and distribute sewing, home floor care, commercial floor care, ceiling fans and lighting products.
What can people expect to see and do when they visit the Vacuum Cleaner Museum?
Each decade of vacuum production is featured. For example, in the 1910's section visitors can see working examples of non-electric cleaners, central vacuum systems, and portable vacuums from those years. The advertising displayed in that section relates directly to the cleaners themselves, and it's always fun to see how much a vacuum cost in 1910, as well as what the person using the cleaner would have looked and dressed like.
Visitors can get a guided tour, or be self-guided, as they wish. The Museum showcases the cleaners and innovations from the 1910's era, through the 1980's. All the machines run, and visitors can ask to have museum personnel start any machine they wish.
What can you tell us about your collection? Is it true that you have some former celebrity owned vacuums?
My collection numbers slightly more than 800 machines currently. I have been blessed with gifts of vintage cleaners from both the public, as well as former customers and even a couple of celebrities. An extremely large number of vacuums in the collection were donations which we have lovingly restored to 'like new' condition.
What are the 3 most popular vacuums in your museum? Can you tell us about them?
The three most popular cleaners in the Museum's collection would have to be:
1) The 1984 Cyclon, made in Italy by Zanussi in 1984 for James Dyson - Serial number 46 (see image to left).
2) The 1937 Electrolux Model 30. So many people 'remember' that particular model.
3) The 1909 Hoover Senior, weighing in at a very modest 59 and one half pounds.
Which vacuums in your collection show the greatest innovations?
The Vacuum Cleaner Museum considers the following four portable vacuum cleaners to be the true innovators. First of course, the Hoover with its motor-driven revolving beating-sweeping brush. Second would be the Air-Way Sanitary System, with the world's first 14 layer sanitary dust container, which was burned or disposed of when full. Third would be the tank type cleaner as designed by Electrolux, the first 'canister' type cleaner that worked brilliantly. Fourth would be the elimination of the dust bag altogether, in the incredible Rexair with its unique water bath filtration and constant unending suction and airflow. These four machines changed the world forever.
Which vacuums are the most outrageous?
The most outrageous machines would be the Kenmore Bug-Eye (Imperial), the KenKart, and the Bison. They always get sideways looks from visitors who often wonder 'why' these machines were designed and sold.
What makes a vacuum cleaner collectable?
Both how rare the cleaners is, and often how unique its history or design. For example, the Lewyt Electronic is extremely collectable because they gave people electric shocks and Lewyt was sued into bankruptcy - making these machines as rare as hen’s teeth. The Hoover model 0 is collectable due to it being the first upright with a motor driven brush. Sometimes color can influence how collectable some machines are - the pink colored model 65 Hoover of 1958 is every collector's dream.
As a collector, is the excitement in the hunt, in restoring a machine, or something else?
As a collector, half the excitement is in the hunt. The most exciting part though, is switching the machine 'on' and hearing it roar to life once again.
How do you track down a new acquisition?
Most of my new acquisitions come to me through donations by Museum visitors, who go home to find "Aunt Tilly's" old sweeper in the basement, and send it to me. Very rarely will I find something on eBay to add to the collection. eBay is mostly used to find a repair part for a restoration job I'm working on.
What was your greatest find?
One of my greatest finds has to be the pink Lady Kenmore "L-shaped" power nozzle that went with the pink Lady Kenmore Whispertone canister of 1961. I had the machine, but had never even seen the power nozzle, as so very, very few people bought one. Available for a VERY short time, along with the world's first pistol grip electric hose, the Lady Kenmore was one of the most expensive cleaners on the market at the time. I never imagined anyone spending the extra money to buy the optional power nozzle. But then, after looking for over 40 years, one turned up on Craigslist in Michigan. I had the machine but no power nozzle. They had the power nozzle but no machine. I bought the power nozzle immediately, and now that machine is complete after searching over 40 years.
If you could add any one vacuum to your collection regardless of rarity or price, what vacuum would it be and why?
If I could add one vacuum to the collection, regardless of rarity or price, it would be the 1962 Compact model C-5 with the Always Beauty Clean power nozzle - the rarest power nozzle on earth.
Have you had any companies approach you for product advice?
I had Air-Way Sanitizor Incorporated approach me about 15 years ago to help with the redesign of their top of the line cleaner. After all the changes were made, the new model was launched as the Tom Gasko Signature Series Air-Way.
The first 100 of the series had special serial number metal tags riveted to the side, with my signature engraved on it as well as a special number such as "1 out of 100".
These became immediate collector’s items, while the Signature Series went on to be a good selling model. I spent over $50,000 of the commission money I got from that machine, remodeling my kitchen.
Also, Tacony Corporation wanted my input on new model design so badly they built a Museum to house my collection.
Are you a member of any clubs or associations related to vacuums?
I was the first elected president of the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club, and was president of the club for six years. I left the VCCC more than a decade ago, and today I'm associated with a private facebook group of friends, who are also vacuum collectors.
What are the best events for a collector or would-be collector to attend?
The Vacuum Cleaner Museum has an annual convention the second weekend in June each year, Thursday through Saturday. There is no fee to attend. The convention involves special tours of the Tacony Manufacturing Factory, the testing and design laboratories, as well as the store rooms for the Museum unavailable to the public at large. The Museum has a barbecue on the Saturday, at no cost to the collector, which everyone seems to greatly enjoy. You may wish to check out the Vacuum Cleaner Museum website.
Any advice for upcoming vacuum cleaner collectors?
My advice to upcoming vacuum collectors would be to not become discouraged by any negativity over what you collect. I would also advise them to sincerely explore the machines of the past, learn as much as you can about them, and place them (in your mind) into their correct time in history. Learn modern American history in school as well, and it will become clear how vacuums fit into the industrial revolution.