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Anyone who will pretend an old vacuum is a death ray is okay with us.
Anyone who will pretend an old vacuum is a death ray is A-OK.

Stark's Vacuum Museum

Field review by the editors.

Portland, Oregon

We live in a dirty world. Our homes are battlefields, invaded by lint, cobwebs, dust kitties and the ceaseless sloughings of our own skin cells. Trench warfare is as close as the crumb-filled gaps between our couch cushions.

Yet our primary weapon against grit and grime has remained much the same for the past 80 years: the vacuum cleaner.

Ken Raasch, at Stark's Vacuum Museum, thinks that's a good thing.

"You look around from one decade to the other -- they don't change a whole lot," he said, grasping the handle of a 1930s upright. "Why? Because they work great!" Raasch sells vacuum cleaners most of the day, but he also knows the history and technology of vacuuming.

Vintage vacuum cleaners.

Stark's "Museum" is a display of dozens of classic vacuums that decorates a wall on the main floor, featuring a timeline from 1876 to 1970 that highlights of the vacuum industry's most fascinating moments. The museum opened in the 1970s, which is when the store began saving the old vacuums that were brought in by Portland's citizens. Why Portland? Why not Cleveland or Omaha? A couple of blocks away we'd seen a huge brown pile labeled "Bark Dust," and guessed that the pulverized byproduct of tree-packed Oregon is one reason why Portlanders use so many vacuums.

"It's a very clean city," Ken agreed.

(Bark Dust is used in landscaping, but we'd like to think that the sign was also a poetic reference to the nearby Grave of Bobbie the Wonder Dog.)

Ken demonstrates the hand-held Junior.

Ken demonstrated a hand-pumped vacuum from the 1800s, stretching its bellows like the leathery lung of some immense alien insect. He rapped the side of "Vacuna, the Goddess of Leisure," an ancient black steel canister that looked like a small industrial boiler on wheels. Clang, clang -- the thing must weigh a ton.

In contrast, he easily hoisted a cardboard vacuum, the Electro-Sweep, made during the penny-pinching Great Depression. "You've got quite a bit of wear and tear on this old fellah over the years," he said, affectionately, pointing to its crumbling edges.

We asked about noisy vacuum cleaners, and about how you don't really feel satisfied until you hear clunky things being sucked into them. "If a vacuum was too quiet, people didn't think it cleaned well," Ken said, putting our preferences in the past tense. "They wanted the noise, and they wanted it to push hard." But noise is still a badge of quality, apparently, as Ken conceded that today's loudest vacuums are built by Royal and Kirby, "top of the line, best units you can buy."

Walls of vacuums provide a sweeping history of Man's struggle with dust.

Ken was a willing vacuum model for us, ably waving a hand-held "Junior" that resembled a small bagpipe, and cradling a water-filter machine that looked like a miniature version of the Space Acorn.

He pulled out a gold-colored "Haley's Comet" model (and he knew its slogan, "Be sure to clean your Jet Set home the Haley's Comet way!") and an Electrolux canister that looked like an atomic bazooka. Ken was excited that the Electrolux had nearly all of its attachments, comparable to a toy robot museum displaying a robot with its original box. We were more impressed that the Electrolux had to be pulled around on sled rails; according to Ken the company didn't adopt wheels until the 1960s.

Because the vacuums in Stark's Vacuum Museum are so old, they aren't usually switched on for visitors (although most of them could be). Ken viewed that potential as a sales plus, and said that he would take customers into the museum to show them nearly-identical models of the vacuum that they wanted to buy.

The Revelation: Metal military-ready construction sucked up bolts.
The Revelation: Metal military-ready construction sucked up bolts.

"They've even got it in a museum, and it's still working?" he said, paraphrasing a customer. "Then that would be a great vacuum for us."

Stark's Vacuum Museum

Stark's Vacuums

107 NE Grand Ave., Portland, OR
I-84 exit 1. Bear left onto Lloyd Blvd, then quickly turn left onto 12th Ave. Drive south one-half mile, turn right onto Burnside for seven blocks, then turn right onto Grand Ave. Drive one block north. On the left, NW corner of Grand and Couch.
M-F 8-7, Sa 9-6, Su 11-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
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