“Meeting the Dull Men of Great Britain – The Man Who Collects Vacuum Cleaners”
12 minute read
From as far back as I can remember I was always obsessively tidy.
As a child, my idea of fun would sometimes be to spend an entire day tidying my bedroom. I’d empty my desk and book shelves of all their contents, and I’d strip bare my cupboards, drawers, and wardrobe.
After polishing my furniture to within an inch of its life, I’d carefully place each and every item back into its rightful place. If I was feeling particularly adventurous then I might even try putting things in new positions, but that didn’t happen all of the time.
Towards the end of the day the only thing that would be left looking untidy would be my carpet, where all the dust and fluff had fallen and gathered over the past few hours. And so out came the vacuum cleaner.
As the upright Electrolux glided across the red and blue stripy surface (this was the 80’s after all) I could see every bit of dirt disappear, leaving behind a wonderfully clean carpet that glowed in the late afternoon sun. That was the final task complete. It was mission accomplished.
Vacuuming my bedroom was always the crowning glory of a satisfying day spent cleaning.
Fast forward more than 30 years and things haven’t changed all that much. And this was something that became clear to me as I began making in-roads with my latest candidate for the Meeting the Dull Men of Great Britain series.
I encountered James Brown while thumbing my way through The Dull Men of Great Britain book and was immediately fascinated. With more than 360 vacuum cleaners in his possession, James has appeared in the Guinness Book of Records for having the world’s largest collection. He also runs a vacuum cleaner repair shop and museum in the town of Heanor, Derbyshire.
When James agreed for me to visit him recently, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling amused by the whole concept. Because even though I’m still the same neat-freak and love nothing more than a freshly vacuumed carpet, the idea of collecting vacuum cleaners seemed more than a little bizarre to me.
What was it about vacuum cleaners that could be so interesting?
And how could they inspire somebody to create a museum in their honour?
I would soon find out for myself, because as the name of his shop and museum would suggest, James Brown is ‘Mr Vacuum Cleaner’.
For the first twenty minutes of the interview I could barely get a word in, and the only thing more impressive than James’ encyclopaedic knowledge was his ability to speak for long periods of time without appearing to take a breath.
His passion for the subject was incredible and his love of vacuum cleaners began way back when he was just 3 or 4 years old. Following a natural progression to working on the appliances in his early teens, James eventually acquired enough knowledge to then begin repairing vacuum cleaners for his school teachers.
As with most collectors, the centre point of his collection started with the models that he was around as a child, and then it grew from there.
“The older generations tend to get drawn towards the older Hoover or Electrolux models, whereas the younger collectors are drawn more towards Dyson or Henry.” James said.
A collection always begins with one item, and it’s that one item that can spark a passion so great that it becomes the heartbeat of your entire pursuit. Throw in a little nostalgia and sentimentality to the mix and your pursuit becomes almost impossible to ignore.
“So what are your absolute favourite vacuum cleaners?” I started.
“I’m a Kirby enthusiast.” James beamed. “They’re my favourite.”
“And if there’s one vacuum cleaner you’d really like to add to your collection, which is it?” I asked.
“Here. Take a look at this.”
James invited me over to look at a poster on the wall that showed all the different Kirby models, right from their inception back in the early 1900’s.
“Kirby are a US brand but they didn’t come over to the UK until 1973. So every model Kirby that I own, prior to 1973, I’ve had to get imported from the States.”
“I’ve got every single one on here, apart from this one.” James said, pointing to the very first model on the chart, the non-electric Kirby Ezee from 1914. “That’s the one I’d really like.”
It was a funky looking appliance and I found it interesting to see the evolution of the brand over the past hundred years. James then showed me a hand-operated Star vacuum cleaner with manual bellows, resembling a giant baked bean can set in the centre of a long pipe.
“This was sold to households in the early 1900’s when electricity wasn’t readily available.” James explained.
Having been given a demonstration though I’d have to say that it appeared to take more effort than it was worth, requiring the user to push and pull the drum up and down the handle to create suction. A dustpan and brush would probably work way quicker, but it was interesting to see how the technology first began.
“Here’s another non-electric vacuum cleaner.” James said, showing me a familiar looking upright model. “You can see how things had begun to progress with this one as it has the traditional upright style and it also has a bag to collect the waste.”
As James pushed the cleaner along the floor and the manually operated motor whirred into life, I suddenly remembered why it looked so familiar.
“My Gran used to have one like this!” I beamed proudly, suddenly aware of my own nostalgia and sentimentality growing inside.
“At the end of the day, they’re all variations on a theme. It requires a motor to turn a fan, which then allows the air to move and carries the waste into the bag. But you can see the progression.”
Just then the door opened and an older gentleman and his grandson entered the shop.
It soon became clear that they were both very well versed on the subject of vacuum cleaners, and the young boy (who couldn’t have been any more than 10 years old) already had a collection of more than thirty of his own.
Mr Vacuum Cleaner had become host to a full-blown three-way discussion on the subject and I found myself struggling to keep up. In the end I just threw in the occasional comment and continued to nod and smile, hoping that it might help me to avoid looking like the bumbling idiot that I actually was in this situation.
“So how do you get hold of new vacuum cleaners for your collection?” The gentleman asked.
James replied. “Very often I’ll get people donating them to me, or people will offer to sell me them. Then there’s eBay, and other collectors who want to swap.”
Swap? I suddenly had an image of trading football stickers back in the school playground…
…got, got, got, NEED!!!
“Other collectors?” I asked.
All three turned and looked at me with an expression that suggested I’d just asked something ridiculous.
James responded. “Oh yes, there’s loads of collectors out there, and it all gets very competitive.”
I stood back, speechless. I’d felt like I’d stumbled across a whole other world that I never knew existed.
The topic of conversation soon turned to the workmanship of various vacuum cleaners, old versus new, and the price tag that accompanies them.
What was clear is that like with many household items in the past, vacuum cleaners were once very expensive, and depending upon which model you go for these days they still can be. But there are reasons for that.
Sadly we live in a throwaway society where many things are built cheaply and sold cheaply. They’ll last for a few years before they need to be thrown away and then you have to start all over again.
But the older vacuum cleaners, while admittedly expensive, were built to last for 30+ years. They were constructed intricately with many individual parts, so when anything went wrong with them you could either get them repaired or strip them down and repair them yourself. These days they’re mass produced and made of plastic, and you cannot buy replacement parts. When they break down, they go in the bin.
The irony of all this is that we’re supposedly living in a society that is more conscious of living greener, yet we’re building items that are intended to be throwaway (and throwaway plastics at that). Where’s the sense in that?
“This is where people like myself struggle to make a living these days.” James began. “Once upon a time it was commonplace for people to either take their vacuum cleaner to be repaired, or to buy the necessary parts so they can repair it themselves.”
“It’s like with cars.” The older gentleman added. “You used to be able to work on your own cars at home, but now you have to take it to a garage so you can plug it into a computer and then the computer tells you what’s wrong with the bloody thing!”
It cannot be denied that there have been significant steps in technology over the years, but it’s debatable as to whether all of those steps have taken us forwards.
But I cannot be a hypocrite, because just like most people I’d be more likely to pay less and have a vacuum cleaner that may last only 4 or 5 years, rather than paying up towards a four figure sum. But much of that comes down to a lack of understanding and there’s no doubt that my eyes were being opened by the conversation.
What was most saddening was that businesses like James’ are at risk and I found myself beginning to feel a sense of loss for a once thriving industry. Because as cheaper alternatives become the norm, people like James will be affected and so too will their livelihoods. Ultimately, the knowledge and skill set could be lost altogether.
“So what are the arguments for investing your money in a top quality vacuum cleaner?”
“People will invest thousands in their home. They’ll pay for carpeting, underlay, sofas, and beds, but then they’ll spend £50 on a vacuum cleaner and think it’s going to do a good job. Often they’ll just see crumbs disappear off the surface of the carpet and think that means it’s cleaning the whole thing, but it’s not. It’s only skimming the surface.”
James continued with passion.
“A vacuum cleaner was something that was once invested in. They’d be bought from catalogues where they could pay instalments, and they’d have salespeople that would visit the customer and run demos in their homes. That way they got to see the results that they’d be getting at home and would feel assured that they were getting the best model for the job.”
I stepped back and began to think about all this while the three collectors continued talking, and it began to make perfect sense. I also asked myself why people should care so much about the workmanship and intricacies of a vacuum cleaner when surely all that mattered was if it did the job. But then, doesn’t the same thing apply to, say, a watch?
I mean sure, we’re talking jewellery and aesthetics now, but not everybody cares about the design of a watch. Most people would only care if it tells the correct time.
Instead of spending £8,000 on a fine Swiss timepiece, why not save your cash and pay £10 for a battery powered quartz? After all, they’ll both tell you the correct time. But a watch enthusiast will tell you that it’s about the workmanship, the durability, and the intricacy of over a hundred tiny moving parts that all work together to keep accurate time.
They’re exactly the same thing, yet they’re entirely different. It all depends upon your perspective.
I’d been zoned out for a moment while thinking about these ideas, and so I brought my attention back to the conversation which had now moved onto the durability and also the weight of different vacuum cleaners. The older gentleman was getting quite excitable about the subject.
“The older ones were built to last and were absolutely solid! Not like these modern plastic ones.” He said, pointing at a modern plastic vacuum cleaner.
“Did you ever see that television advert where they swung a heavy metal ball into the side of a Dyson?” James asked.
The man nodded enthusiastically.
“Well when was the last time you ever did that to a vacuum cleaner?” James laughed.
The man nodded again, but then his eyes widened and he became excitable. He pointed at his grandson.
“Well, actually, not long ago I kicked my vacuum cleaner didn’t I?”
His grandson nodded.
“Yeah, yeah, I kicked it, you know, in frustration. I was like, grrrrrr, and then I kicked it…”
He continued nodding and then pointed his finger towards his foot.
“…and I broke my bloody toe!!”
His expression was deadly serious but his words were hilarious, and I had to turn away as I’d started to laugh.
He continued. “But it’s a good job I didn’t kick that vacuum cleaner over there.” He said, pointing at a rather sturdy looking upright model. “Or I’d have broken my bloody foot!!”
And now I had to turn away completely and face the wall. Tears were now streaming from my eyes and I could feel my shoulders jiggling around from my attempts to mute the laughter.
“Anyway, we’d better be off now or we’ll be getting a parking ticket. Nice to see you again James. And nice to meet you…”
I composed myself and then turned back around.
“Elliot. It’s Elliot. Nice to meet you too.”
The gentleman turned around and ushered his grandson out of the doorway who was still gazing around the shop in wonder.
“So they were collectors too?” I began.
“Yes, I get a lot of visitors coming here. Some are collectors, and others are just curious about the place. When I first started this thing, it was the very first vacuum cleaner museum and so it was all seen as being a bit quirky. And then the media took interest in it.”
“What kind of media interest has there been?” I asked.
“Well it started out with local newspapers, and then local television and radio broadcasters picked up on it too. As the bigger companies tend to market the smaller ones, it led to tabloids like The Sun and The Mirror picking up on it. It had that snowball effect.”
“So what kind of television did you do?”
“Well there was a school programme for the BBC and then there was a documentary. But then Warick Davis visited as part of his Weekend Escapes show.”
“No way! Warick Davis? Really?”
“Yeah, apparently he’s a fellow enthusiast and lover of vacuuming, so his family surprised him and brought him here as one of the destinations for the show. They even brought him in blindfolded.”
“That’s brilliant!” I laughed.
It was incredible to hear just how well known Mr Vacuum Cleaner was, but the conversation took a sad turn when James explained to me that not every bit of media attention has been what he thought it would be.
“It seems that the quirkiness of what I do is very often the main focus for the media. Everything else gets ignored and instead they just think about what will make their audiences laugh. In the end, it feels as though I’m being mocked, like they’re saying there’s something wrong with me.”
This is something that really got to me, because while admittedly I’d visited James feeling a sense of amusement and fascination, it was from genuine interest and it had never even crossed my mind to make fun of him. More to the point, I’ve no idea why anybody else should want to.
Sure, James and his museum had been featured in the Dull Men of Great Britain book, but this had been done with an ironic sense of humour and it had been done so respectfully.
“Leland contacted me and asked me if I’d like to be in the book. He came out to visit me and he was great.” James explained.
But it seems that not everybody has approached James with the same good intentions and he went on to explain this further.
“If I’d have been into cars or football then nobody would have cared, but as soon as you’re into something a little out of the ordinary, people treat you as though there’s something wrong with you. It’s all labels.”
I continued listening.
“Of course the media wants to sell newspapers, but they’ll sensationalise everything and make it sound as though I’m just sat at home at night, surrounded by vacuum cleaners.”
As I listened to James I found myself feeling really angered by what he was saying. Because no matter how hard they may try to justify it, if you’re writing or filming something about another person, and if you put that out into the public domain with the sole intention of having other people laugh at that person, then it’s tantamount to bullying. And bullying is something that I cannot abide in this world.
People with interests like James’ may get labelled as dull, but everything that he does is fuelled by genuine passion. He knows what he loves, he follows it without apology, and he has found his calling in life. Even in the face of criticism, James continues to move forwards with the business. And despite there not being an awful lot of money to be made in a sadly declining market, he continues to make the necessary sacrifices so that he can continue with his love of vacuum cleaners.
We may not all aspire to be collectors, and we may want completely different things, but to identify what we love and to then pursue it with every inch of our being; that is the life that we all dream of living, and in this respect, James is an inspiration to us all.
And for those of us that care deeply about something yet spend all our time worrying about what other people might think of us, take note from Mr Vacuum Cleaner.
It’s your life, and it’s yours alone.
The next “Meeting The Dull Men of Great Britain” road-trip adventure has now been published and can be accessed by clicking here. And if you’d like to be kept up to date with all the latest DMC Adventure news then please sign up to the Lossul.com newsletter mailing list by following this link. You are free to unsubscribe at any time.
Are you a fellow vacuum cleaner enthusiast? Or perhaps a lover of cleanliness in general? Have you ever really stopped to think about the merits of different vacuum cleaners? And have you ever kicked a vacuum cleaner and broken your toe, just like that bloke in this story (that really did happen)? Do you now feel a little differently about the subject of boredom and dullness? Are you going to let your inner dull-person out a little more? And is there anything that you’d like to ask which either myself or the readers could help answer? Please feel free to leave your comments below so we can get a conversation started.
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