St. Louis’ Hidden Museums: Vacuum cleaner museum in St. James has a local backstory | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis’ Hidden Museums: Vacuum cleaner museum in St. James has a local backstory

Jun 29, 2016

Those of you who have grown up in St. Louis might remember the name and personality of Stan Kann, the 22-year resident organist at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis, Missouri. You may also remember him for his vast collection of vacuum cleaners, which made him the most frequent non-celebrity guest on Johnny Carsons’ Tonight Show with over 77 appearances.

Kann died in 2008 and fellow vacuum cleaner enthusiast Tom Gasko, who grew up in St. Louis and operated a vacuum repair shop here for many years, acquired a good portion of Kann’s collection. Gasko is now the curator at the Vacuum Cleaner Museum in St. James. Yes, vacuum cleaner museum.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Gasko joined host Don Marsh to discuss the museum and the history of the vacuum cleaner. This was part of our new summer series on the St. Louis area’s quirky and small “hidden museums.”

For Gasko, vacuums are more than just cleaning machines. Changes in their form and style over the years have given them a kind of nostalgic value.

“Vacuum cleaners relate to our oldest memories,” Gasko said. “Very many people relate to the vacuum cleaner because the final design has not yet been finalized.”

Tom Gasko is the owner and proprietor of the Vacuum Museum and Factory Outlet in St. James, Missouri.
Credit Tom Gasko | Vacuum Cleaner Museum & Factory Outlet

He contrasted the ever-changing shape of the vacuum cleaner with the stable, predictable image of the household dryer. Whereas dryers have from their inception been large square machines into which clothes are placed to dry, vacuums have come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and styles since their invention in the early 1900s.

For those who are curious about this evolutionary process, Gasko’s museum is organized into a series of rooms that allow visitors to explore the progression of the vacuum over time. Period furniture fills the rooms and old advertisements for vacuums line the walls to show how marketing practices have changed from the 1900s to now.

Have you ever wondered why some vacuum cleaners are made with headlights?

Gasko was able to solve that mystery for us. When vacuums were invented in the early 1900s, they were the first household appliances to have a cord. Houses were not made with places to plug in these cords (i.e. electrical outlets), so to use their vacuums, people had to unscrew a light bulb and plug the cord into a lamp socket. In order to avoid making customers clean in the dark, manufacturers started putting headlights on the front of their vacuums.

Now, over 100 years later, Gasko believes the future of the vacuum is to get rid of the cord altogether.

“As battery technology gets greater and greater, we are coming up with vacuum cleaners that have no cord but have long run times,” he said.

A final piece of advice from this vacuum cleaner afficiando? Avoid the door-to-door sales pitches and do a little bit of research before deciding on the vacuum that is right for you.

“I’m always asking people to find somebody who praises their vacuum cleaner…and ask them if you could give it a whirl around your house to see if it actually is the machine you want to buy,” Gasko said.

The next time you’re in the market for a new vacuum, you could also consider stopping by Gasko’s museum and factory outlet to get some expert advice before taking the plunge.

We want your input finding museums. Have you seen any quirky ones recently? What should we explore? We are particularly interested in discovering 'hidden museums' in Illinois.

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This summer, St. Louis on the Air will introduce you to a few such museums in the region as part of a recurring summer segment. Earlier this month, we profiled the National Horseshoe Pitching Hall of Fame and Museum. You’ll also hear about other hidden museums that exist nationwide on Morning Edition later this summer. What should we explore?

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.