Portland, Oregon, takes pride in its quirkiness: Most souvenir shops have at least one item donning the “Keep Portland Weird” slogan and the city named a local unicyclist, street performer, and bagpiper—known as “The Unipiper”—as its unofficial mascot. Though, for everything that’s bizarre about Portland, one of the city’s quirkiest attractions features a common household appliance: the vacuum cleaner.
A museum dedicated to vintage vacuum cleaners might not sound too exciting, but Stark’s Vacuum Museum is a Portland landmark, with 25 vacuums on display from 1800s-era carpet cleaners to machines from the 1970s. Part of the museum’s appeal is its unassuming location: The whole exhibit can be found right inside its namesake store, Stark’s Vacuums.
As I make my way down a busy street in Portland’s Central Eastside neighborhood, the large neon Stark’s sign starts to become visible. In smaller, less prominent letters beneath, it reads “Vacuum Cleaners.” It’s a sign I’ve passed more times than I can count since moving to Portland. Inside, Stark’s Vacuums is brightly lit. The carpet is spotless, of course. Another neon sign hangs above the counter. I walk past a row of new vacuums on sale and head toward the museum, where I find old vacuums mounted onto a wall along with a timeline depicting milestones in vacuum cleaner history.
I’m greeted by the curator of Stark’s Vacuum Museum, who introduces himself as “Rick Nye, The Vacuum Cleaner Guy.” Nye is a vacuum cleaner expert and has been in the vacuum business for more than 40 years. He has worked at Stark’s for 25 years and enjoys sharing his passion for vacuum cleaners with customers, travelers, and anyone else who will listen. Outside the museum, he’s a vacuum collector himself.
“I’ve been collecting them for about 25 years and have around 40 at home,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated with vacuums.”
Suits and ties
Long before Stark’s Vacuum Museum was a local tourist attraction, Clarence Stark was selling vacuums door to door. In 1932, he decided to start his own business and opened his first store in Portland. What began as a refurbishing shop for appliances eventually grew into a full-fledged vacuum cleaner business. In the 1960s, the company moved to its current location on Northeast Grand Avenue.
“This is Clarence Stark,” says Nye as he holds up a black-and-white photo of Stark leaning against an automobile. Another from the 1950s depicts store employees wearing bow ties. “Up until around 2000, all of our salesmen wore a suit and tie,” Nye says. “Even the mechanics.”
Today, the company is owned by Jim Stark, Clarence’s grandson. Since opening, Stark’s Vacuums has expanded to nine locations throughout the Northwest region. Though some of the stores have a few vintage vacuums on display, the full vacuum museum can only be found at the original Portland location.
Before both the museum and store were renovated in 2017, a few hundred vacuums used to be displayed across a long hallway in a back corner of the store. After renovations, the store could no longer fit all the vacuums in its showroom, so Nye selected his favorites.
“We have around 300 altogether, but most of them have been put up in storage,” he says. “Many of them were probably trade-ins from the 1950s that were stored away. And then in the late 1960s, the store began displaying them. Once more people saw the display, they’d say, ‘Oh, my grandmother has this vacuum stored down the basement. Why don’t I donate it?’ And that’s kind of how we acquired our collection.”
A brief history
Carpet sweepers have been around since the 1860s, however, motorized vacuums didn’t come onto the scene until the early 1900s. For those who are curious about what kind of vacuum cleaners their long lost relatives might have used, Stark’s Vacuum Museum is not only a showroom for odd old vacuums but a glimpse into how the household appliance progressed over time.
I make my way down the gallery of vacuum cleaners, starting with the early 20th-century models. The timeline, which was added to the exhibit in 2017, highlights important moments in vacuum cleaner history alongside old ads and magazine clippings from various time periods.
“These are the vacuums that were the most interesting or that were made for maybe just a short period of time,” says Nye as he waves his hand toward the collection. Attached to some of the vacuums are old cards that describe when the machine was made and what’s special about it. I fixate on a clunky-looking 1910 Cyclone vacuum that, according to Nye, required two people to work it.
“One person would vacuum and the other other would crank the wheelbarrow-like contraption,” he explains while demonstrating. “People got their exercise while vacuuming.”
As Nye guides me through the gallery I can hear sales transactions ringing at the register and the hum of vacuums as customers test a potential purchase. It’s a busy afternoon at the store, but the fact that the museum happens to be right in the middle of it all makes the experience more interesting.
Gliding on air
There was a time when vacuum cleaners had other uses besides floor cleaning. Nye points out a Eureka from 1930.
“You could take the bag off and it had a heater attachment,” he says. “So it could be used to dry your hair. Probably not the safest thing.” An instruction booklet for another model says that “you could put it beside your bed at night if you have a cold or flu,” turn it on, and it would suck germs out of your home. Nye shakes his head. “That’s very doubtful,” he says.
Of the bunch, one of my favorites is an orange saucer-shaped Hoover Constellation vacuum from the 1960s that glides on air. “Hoover advertised it like this because people were obsessed with anything space-aged back in the 1950s and ‘60s,” says Nye.
Though vacuums have come a long way since the early 1900s, the vintage styles are fascinating—and fun to look at. I’m surprised to learn that many of the vacuum cleaners on display still work. “Who would have thought that something made in 1920 would work as well as some of the vacuums today?” Nye says as he turns on one of the vacuums from 1921 to demonstrate. Sure enough, it still runs.
If you go
Stark’s Vacuum Museum is located inside Stark’s Vacuums in Portland, Oregon. The store and museum are open but visitors are required to wear a mask per COVID-19 protocols. The museum is free of charge.