Step 1 — Artifact analysis


  1. Using the artifact, write a physical description of it. What does it appear to be made of?
  2. How would you explain this object to someone else?
  3. What special qualities does this artifact possess?  Think about shape, color, movable parts.
  4. Using the above information:
    • What do you think this artifact was used for?
    • Who might have used it?
    • Where might it have been used?
    • When might it have been used?

Step 2 — Read the description of the artifact and its context within the time period of the Gilded Age

vacuum2The Agan Vacuum (1947.12)
Created by Frank W. Agan
Painted Cast Iron c. late 19th, early 20th Century

The Agan Vacuum Cleaner was created by Frank W. Agan in Ludlow, Vermont sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century. His vacuum is a type of non-electric vacuum prevalent throughout the United States in the early 20th century. Known as a “wheel operated vacuum” the Agan Vacuum used a suction system with various moving parts including a pulley, belts, a fan, and two hoses. Meant to be used by two people, one to crank the wheel in order to generate the suction and one to clean with the wand or head of the vacuum, this labor saving device collected dirt as well as dust in one hose and transferred it to the second so that the refuse may be placed out the window. As new technology, this vacuum was an innovation of its day and it enabled women or their servants to clean rugs, furniture and hardwood floors. The non-electric wheel type vacuums, such as the Agan, were in great demand until the electric replacement came onto the market also in the early 20th century.

Step 3 — Your interpretation of the artifact in historical context

  1. What does the artifact tell us about technology of the Gilded Age?
  2. What does it tell you about the life and times of the people who made it and used it?
  3. What role does gender play in the above question?
  4. Can you identify any similar item from today or any other labor saving devices that are utilized?
  5. How does gender play a role in today’s technology?

Step 4 — Narrative

The Agan Vacuum is an important symbol of the Gilded Age. As technology and innovation spurred on the Industrial Age, wealth increased and as a consequence, a new class developed. With a vast amount of buying power, many new products appeared to meet the demands of this new class, especially its women. Society demanded that women present their homes as a model of their husband’s wealth and influence in the work place and with disposable income on the increase, washing machines, stoves, and vacuums all represented this wealth. Meant as “labor saving devices,” these new products also opened up some “leisure time” allowing women time to spend on volunteering in their communities and focusing on other aspects of their roles as mothers and wives.

Lesson plan and commentary by

Christine Smith
Spaulding High School
Barre, VT