Does convenience actually change anything?
The Holland Electro vacuum cleaner is made from Bakelite, the world’s first fully synthetic plastic material. The development of this material ushered in a new generation of human-made materials that marked the explosion of plastics that came with it. Bakelite plastic started a new era of mass consumption of affordable goods. Companies could produce items made from Bakelite on a mass scale at a low cost. At the time of its inventor’s death in 1944, the world production of Bakelite reached 175,000 tons and was used in over 15,000 different products.
Bakelite contains high levels of carbon and calcium carbonate, which can be recovered for use in ironmaking. People who manufactured Bakelite were exposed to harmful substances because Bakelite contains high amounts of toxic polymers like formaldehyde and asbestos. Formaldehyde can irritate the nose, eyes, throat and skin. High levels of exposure to formaldehyde may even cause some types of cancers. Moreover, plastic pollution harms the oceans and wildlife. Most of the global pollution is passed from high-income countries to middle- and low-income countries that generally do not have effective waste systems to manage it. As of 2018, humans have manufactured over 9 billion tons of plastic.
When first produced, vacuum cleaners were a luxury item built to last. The original price of a comparable model to the Holland Electro in 1949 was 135 guilders (equivalent to €420 today). Products such as the Holland Electro are highly durable. Examples still work today. The Holland Electro requires less energy to operate than contemporary vacuum cleaners. It consumes 0.440 kWh of electricity for each hour of use, 2.7 times less than the average vacuum cleaner in 2023 (1.200 kWh per hour). Holland Electro costs less to use and produces less carbon from electricity production (0.103 kg CO2e versus 0.28 kg CO2e per hour of use).
The marketing materials for vacuum cleaners promised female liberation through decreased unpaid labor at home. But despite time and labor-saving devices, contemporary households spend about the same time on chores as 100 years ago. And women are still doing more of it. As of 2016, women spend, on average, 4.66 hours a week doing unpaid housework, compared to men at 2.42 hours a week. According to a US survey conducted in 2017, women vacuum 2.7 times more than men.
"I Want to Break Free," Museum of the Home
"Vacuum," National Museum of American History
"Bakelite's Lasting Legacy," Science Musem
"The Invention of the Vacuum Cleaner," Science Musem
"Women shoulder the responsibility of 'unpaid work'," Office of National Statistics