Thursday, 27 August 2015

What do British people call a vacuum cleaner?

THE British nominally call it "hoover." But that's a little misleading (see below). This is because back in the 1970s, half the people in the UK were calling it a "vacuum cleaner" (or "the vacuum" or just "the vac").

We can hear "vacuum" or "vacuum cleaner" several times in the movies Get Carter (1971, starring Michael Caine) and Sitting Target (1971, starring Oliver Reed) -- both MGM films that aimed to give an "authentic" flavour of UK of the time for the international (especially American) audience.

It's the same situation with the index cards, the British term for which is record cards -- notwithstanding the fact the package labelling has "index cards" as sold by stationers W.H. Smith and Ryman's for as long as I could remember (certainly back in the 1970s).


Just to show that "vacuum cleaner" isn't as American as the received wisdom indicates, here's more illumination:

Before the vac, there were already at least two dozen British, American, French and German patents from the 1850s on mechanised carpet cleaning. [2]

In 1901, Hubert Cecil Booth at age 30 invented the motorised vacuum cleaner AND coined the term "vacuum cleaner" -- UK Patent No. 17,433/1901 filed 30 Aug. 1901. [1][2][4]

Booth later became chairman and managing director of the British Vacuum Cleaner & Engineering Company (BVCC). BVCC is today the British Vacuum Company (BVC) ( [1][2]

The following year, 1902, Booth introduced his vacuum cleaner to the general retail market in the UK. [1][2][4]

In 1903, BVCC became a publicly listed company. Interestingly in the same year, wealthy ladies started throwing "vacuum cleaner parties" in which uniformed BVCC attendants vacuumed the place. [2][3]

Even more interesting, Booth himself was once stopped by the police after giving a vacuum demo at the Royal Mint. He forgot to empty the dustbag, which contained a sizeable quantity of gold dust from the Mint. [2]

In 1908, Booth or BVCC was unable to afford producing the vacuum cleaner, so Booth so the patent to William Henry Hoover. And the rest is history. [1][2][4]

Above: BVCC advertisement for UK market, January 1923 (via

In 1926, BVCC branded its entire line of domestic vacuum cleaners under the famous tradename "Goblin." The brand was acquired in 1973 by Birmingham Sound Reproducers (then BSR Housewares, now Astec BSR). [2][3]

Above: UK market advertisement, 1938. The price was £11.15s (or £11.75 in decimalised money).

In 1955, the Institution of Civil Engineers issued Booth's official obituary:

"In 1900 he began a consulting practice in London. In 1901 he invented the vacuum cleaner, and the success of his discovery laid the foundation of the vacuum cleaner industry throughout the world. Later he became Chairman and Managing Director of the British Vacuum Cleaner and Engineering Co."

[Source: Institution of Civil Engineers. "Obituary. Hubert Cecil Booth. 1871-1955". ICE Proceeding, 1955, vol. 4(4), pages 631-632. London: Thomas Telford Publishing, 1955.]
(Boldfacings mine.)

Aside: It's apparent even in 1955 that "vacuum cleaner" and "vacuum cleaner industry" was already in [some] authoritative use in the UK, notwithstanding the "Hoover" usage. In any case, whenever possible, avoid the use of a descriptive name based on a trademarked name (the general rule in journalism), ergo, vacuum cleaner.

Interestingly, the BVCC vans were bright red in colour. [4]

[1] Dictionary of National Biography, 1951-1960, edited by E.T. Williams and Helen M. Palmer, Oxford University Press, 1971.
[2] Mary Robinson Sive, Vacuum Cleaners Before Electricity, Historical Text Archive, undated web page.
[3] Mr Vacuum Cleaner, Vacuum cleaner History, Mr Vacuum Cleaner, undated web page.
[4] The Naked Listener's Weblog, various pages: contact author.

Hubert Cecil Booth via Wikipedia
BVCC advertisement and UK market advertisement via

Written 11 Jan. 2015


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