Museums of Missouri #4: The Vacuum Cleaner Museum in St. James

Posted June 27th, 2018

It’s not the stuff that museums are made of … it’s the stories associated with the stuff that make museums interesting. You will find plenty of stories associated with the main character—a vacuum cleaner—here at this unusual museum in St. James, Mo. Its curator, Tom Gasko, is the chief storyteller and vacuum bag changer, because it is his collection featured within the walls of this tourist destination. The Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Factory Outlet Store sits off busy Interstate 44 across from local wineries.

Located in the same building as Tacony Manufacturing, which makes Simplicity and Riccar vacuums, the site not only sells vacuums and parts for most other types of vacuums, but also serves as a research laboratory, a “playground,” for vacuum cleaner designers. Gasko can pull out vacuums with features that engineers want to include in a new design and demonstrate the function on one of several types of flooring, including shag carpet, in the building.

Gasko and Barnitz

Museum curator Tom Gasko and State Senator Frank Barnitz, who also was visiting that day. It seems only fitting that the “Patriot” model Riccar upright vacuum cleaner be included in this shot.

Gasko once served as president of the National Vacuum Cleaners Club and as a child, he took apart many of his mother’s appliances, including her vacuum cleaner (at age 6). He had a few problems with reassembling the wiring, though. His mom paid a repairman $10 to put the vacuum cleaner back together and then, little Tom took it apart again. He got a spanking before he told his dad how to put it back together – because he paid attention to the guy at the repair shop earlier in the day.

Gasco laid out the museum in vignette format, starting with powerless carpet cleaners dating to 1910 and ending with the same vacuum used on Air Force One today. Visitors walk through rooms in time, filled with working vacuum cleaners—thanks to Gasco’s 20-year experience as a vacuum cleaner repairman. Posters of advertisements associated with the products hang on the walls of the various rooms and period furniture completes the picture.

Tour of the Vacuum Cleaner Museum

Vacuum cleaner museum

Here’s an example of one of the vignettes in the museum, complete with posters, furniture and vacuums from the period.

Gasco walks visitors through time, talking about not only the history of the development of the vacuum cleaner, but also taking a peek back into the times, at reasons people would pay such a high proportion of their salaries to buy machines that suck up dirt.

His descriptions will make you chuckle. For example, in the early stages of pre-vacuum cleaner days, Gasko pulled out a cumbersome-looking machine and said, “Here’s the craziest one I ever saw. It’s the Suzanne Somers’ bust-developer/vacuum cleaner. It’s an eggbeater, a fan, a bag and a stick. The two motions are counter-productive to each other. … Cardio workout 101!”

Gasko’s narrative makes the museum’s vacuums come alive, and he even turns on the hover vacuum from the 1970s and tells why customers returned it in droves. (We don’t want to spoil your trip to the museum, so you’ll have to visit it to find out!)

hoover vac up close

It BEATS as it Sweeps as it Cleans

Several of the vacuums belonged to Stan Kann, who played the mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis for 22 years, before he moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and co-hosted The Noon Showwith Marty Bronson. Kann collected vacuums and after he died two years ago this September, Gasko chose the vacuums from Kann’s collection that he needed for the museum. He said, “I only took the vacuum cleaners that I didn’t have in my own collection, like the very famous Vacuette, which was on the Johnny Carson Show with Kann.”

Other museum machines also appeared on the popular evening television show and on movies. Gasco points to the shag rug rake attachment from Mr. Mom that when filmed on floor level looked like a shark’s mouth.

The museum features vacuum cleaners made by Tacony Manufacturers, which started making vacuum cleaners in the 1980s. Five million vacuum cleaners later, the company is proud to be an American company, like Rainbow and Kirby. All other vacuum cleaners are made in China.

Air Force 1 vacuum cleaner

This vacuum cleaner rode on Air Force One during the second Bush administration.

Tacony is under contract to provide vacuum cleaners to Boeing, which is under contract for Air Force One and Two. Gasco said when Barak Obama became president, Tacony sold Boeing its current model because it has Hepa filters and can contain anthrax. Tacony received the vacuum cleaner that had flown with the Bush and Obama administrations, along with a thank you letter stating that the vacuum cleaner had many frequent flyer miles. Gasco plugged it in and the smell of piña coladas almost knocked him over. He reckons the cleaners pushed the vacuum cleaner over a few wet spots on the plane.

Vacuum cleaner museumThe collection is almost complete, but Gasco is still looking for a few vacuum cleaners from the 1930s to the 1950s. They do not have to be in working order.

The gift shop offers key rings, pens and tote bags that read “Clean Freaks Welcome.”

The Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Factory Outlet is located on #3 Industrial Drive in St. James. Open daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m., excluding holidays.  Free admission. Call 866-444-9004. Visit the Vacuum Cleaner Museum website.




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