Vacuum Collectors Unite

Vacuums lined up in the hallway of Holiday Inn
When hundreds of vacuum cleaners are lined up in the hallway of a Holiday Inn, many would suspect that the hotel is lacking maid service, or possibly hosting an obsessive-compulsive support group. But there is indeed another explanation for the abundance of carpet cleaning devices.

It is a festival that members of the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors' Club have been longing for all year — the 2002 Annual Club Convention in Clarksville, Ind. Sunday Morning Correspondent Bill Geist stopped by to check out the wacky event.

"We have people from eight to 80. Blind, crippled, crazy. We have everyone — doctors, executive secretaries, and airline personnel beauticians," says Charlie Watrous, the president of the Vacuum Cleaner Collectors' Club. "We have people in the club that have over 600 machines."

And they have all kinds of cleaners, from the 1965 Compact to the 1937 Electrolux. Some of them are restored and each has a unique history.

But for many of these collectors, putting their vacuum cleaners on display in front of others takes a lot of courage.

"We want everyone to feel comfortable bringing their vacuum cleaners to the club and getting out of their vacuum cleaner closets if you will," says Watrous. "Why would they be in the closet? Because collecting vacuum cleaners, you might be perceived as being a nut, crazy, eccentric."

That's why the convention is more like a reunion where these rare birds can flock together, as a reminder to themselves that there are others like them swept in the same bag. Even though some of them are new to the club, they hug, shake hands and share their fascination with vacuum cleaners.

For many, that fascination began as early as childhood.

"I was 2 in 1959 and that was me playing with the machine. I really enjoyed this," says a member, showing an old picture. Another recalls, "I asked for an electric broom when I was four."

They were obsessed with the mechanics of how the vacuum works — how the fan turns and how the brush roll wraps around the belt.

Watrous even sold his Nintendo for a vacuum cleaner when he was 10.

"I would go to the neighbors' house and vacuum for them. I would always search (the vacuum cleaner) out. I would open the closet and ask if I could use it, and they didn't mind. It's a clean hobby," a member named Tania recalls.

And there is Evan, the youngest member of the club, who is barely a teenager. He discovered his unusual interest at age 2 and started collecting vacuum cleaners when he was 8.

At the convention, these professional fans not only exhibit their items, they also compete to find out whose toy is the best. Every year, a panel of vacuum scholars awards blue ribbons to the best original vacuum, the best restored vacuum and the most historically significant vacuum.

The halls are alive with the sound of vacuums even before the most thrilling contest begins. Pushing and pulling their toys, many collectors make last-minute preparations in their rooms to gain a competitive advantage.

"I adjust this machine so it's the correct height for the test carpet," one contestant says.

And then, like boxers going into the ring, they walk down the hallway and head to the competition carpet, soiled with hand-blended dirt to exacting specifications.

RJ, an all-star in sport vacuuming, has won the championship several times. "My first convention I brought home four blue ribbons, my second time, I brought two. The third time, I got six. So I currently hold 12 blue ribbons –more than any other member so far."

This time, he arrives with his secret weapon under wraps, trying to push his Regina Model One to the limit.

"Beautiful technique, look at the motion!" kibitzers exclaim while observing his performance.

The competition of straight suction machines has a two-minute limit and the trick is to push the vacuum cleaner forward to the end, then pull back at half speed.

After each contestant finishes, officials use a state-of-the-art machine to suck up what's left behind. The lowest amount wins. The dirt is collected in cups and weighed at the judging table. When it comes down to it: "vacuuming is a game of ounces."

The excitement continues for two days, with categories ranging from pre-war revolving-brush uprights to post-war canisters.

Tania dazzles the spectators with her golden Compact. The pit crews work furiously to get Watrous' 49 Singer back on the carpet, where he employs his patent slow drawback with a twist technique.

A group of housekeepers in the crowd cannot believe their eyes. Marcella has been vacuuming professionally for more than 30 years but she has never seen the fun of it — until now.

She admits that she would consider hiring some of the participants, noting that they have exceptional techniques for cover area.

When the final grain of dirt has been lifted from the carpet, it comes to the closing ceremony.

Evan is the rookie of the year, winning two blue ribbons in his first competition. And without surprise, RJ wins again. One day, he may end up in the vacuuming hall of fame.

It's only a matter of time until ESPN2 and sponsors like Budweiser, Nike or Carpet Fresh discover the sport vacuuming. Remember you heard it here, first.

(This story original aired Sept. 29, 2002)