St. James, Mo., is home to the only vacuum cleaner exhibit in the U.S.
To call Tom Gasko a walking encyclopedia on the history of vacuum cleaners is no exaggeration, but then his love affair with the unique machinery began when he was just 6 years old.
“I was walking home from first grade when I spotted an old vacuum cleaner that had been put out for the trash. I took it home and started trying to figure out how it worked. I plugged it in and nothing. I took it apart, put it back together, plugged it in again and blew out the lights. My dad came home and laughed and replaced the fuse. Then he looked over the vacuum cleaner and realized it was a frayed cord causing the problem. He trimmed it and then it ran. It had been thrown out because of a bad cord. I still have that barrel vacuum cleaner and that was 50 years ago,” he finished with a laugh. And with that, a lifetime fascination began.
Tom is the curator of The Vacuum Cleaner Museum, located in St. James, Mo., which is attached to the Tacony manufacturing unit, a local vacuum cleaner factory. It is proclaimed to be the only such exhibition in the United States and a walk around the gallery that includes free admission is an exceptional, enjoyable historical experience.
“The vacuum cleaner is the only appliance that was ever sold door-to-door. Many things were at that time,” Tom said. “The milk man and the ice man came on a regular basis and then there were other salesmen, like Fuller Brush. It’s also the only appliance in which the design has not been finalized.” His multi-room exhibition hall which features canister, barrel, upright and robot models, among others.
The museum is broken up by decades, each with a sign that lists a few other events of each decade like the Titanic, World War I, World War II or the Korean War to give visitors a time frame. Other items from over the years throughout the museum help to create small rooms that feature furniture, televisions, radios, and other items from each time period. Historic vacuum cleaner ad posters also add to the ambiance of the entire gallery.
“The first vacuum cleaners made in the late 1800s were not electric,” Tom explained. “Some of them were powered by a plunger operation. Another was operated by a bicycle pump and still another by an egg beater mechanism while others were basically just carpet sweepers. It was the addition of suction that brought us to the modern day vacuums.”
More than 800 vacuum cleaners are housed in the museum – and each one is in working condition. Much of the collection was donated by Tom from his own collection. A large part of his collection is from legendary organist (and vacuum enthusiast) Stan Kann, whom Tom met at the age of 4 after his mother wrote a letter to a local TV station saying the young Tom was interested in “anything with a motor in or on it.”
Years after the original vacuum cleaners were sold door-to-door, Tom sold Rainbow vacuum cleaners the same way and made enough money to buy his first car.
“I rode my bicycle to a car dealer to buy a 1979 Trans Am with $7,000 cash,” Tom recalled. “The salesman took one look at the cash and asked if I’d been selling drugs”
By age 21, Tom had his own store in Festus, Mo., south of St. Louis repairing vacuum cleaners.
“I started repairing Rainbow vacuum cleaners and then Hoovers, Kirbys, Electrolux and for the next 27 years,” he added.
Tom joined Tacony Corporation in 2009, and his visions of the world’s first vacuum cleaner museum became a reality.
“The original intent of the museum was for engineers to study the different vacuums from various eras since floors change.”
From one century to the next, from the 1800s to 2018, Tom Gasko spends each day with vacuum cleaners that stretch across nearly 150 years and he is ready to share all of it with anyone who comes through his door.
The Vacuum Cleaner Museum is located at 3 Industrial Drive in St. James, Mo., with signs marking the way through town, and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, Monday through Saturday.