OUR HERITAGE: THE STORY OF STARK COUNTY: James Murray Spangler came up with an invention that could have made millions, but he sold his patent to what would become The Hoover Co.

With a little more luck, deeper pockets and perhaps sharper business acumen, James Murray Spangler could have been famous. That vacuum cleaner in your closet or on a shelf at the nearest Wal-Mart could very well have been called a Spangler, instead of a Hoover.

Spangler is the guy who invented the first portable electric suction vacuum cleaner.  

Officially, his brainchild is U.S. Patent 889,823. Spangler applied for a patent on his "Carpet Sweeper and Cleaner" on Sept. 14, 1907, and it was approved on June 2, 1908. The same basic design principles he used then are the same ones that make a modern vacuum cleaner work.

The Hoover Co., of course, made the vacuum cleaner famous. Purchasing Spangler's patent gave the company an 18-year jump start to help corner the market. The company grew exponentially. Long after Spangler's death in 1915, in its heyday, the North Canton-based business employed 15,000 people worldwide. Hoover family members made millions of dollars. Stockholders raked in more. Today, the vacuum cleaner business is a $15 billion industry, according to trade publications.

But what became of James Murray Spangler and his family after he sold his patent to William H. "Boss" Hoover? 

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"I don't think Spangler was as much of a genius as he was portrayed," said Tom Gasko, curator of the Vacuum Cleaner Museum and Factory Outlet in St. James, Mo., and a vacuum history buff.

Gasko, who oversees a collection of more than 800 vacuums, said Spangler's machine was a clunky and clanky contraption that weighed about 35 pounds. The brush roller was made of a section of wooden broomstick. The roller had no bearings. The brushes were made of animal hair bristles. Waxed string, wrapped around each end of the stick, acted as the bushing. And a leather belt, attached to the motor, made the stick and brushes turn. Hoover carved out a section of his leather goods factory in New Berlin (now North Canton) to produce the suction sweepers. Spangler served as production supervisor of a three-man crew that built six machines per day. In the first year — 1908 — they completed 372 of the sweepers.

But Hoover's oldest son, Herbert, realized the sweepers had to become less like intimidating machines if they were going to sell them to housewives. In those days, when females didn't even have the right to vote, household chores were strictly women's work. "We've got to get someone in here who's accustomed to engineering around the housewife's inexperience with gadgets," he told his younger brother, Daniel Hoover, according to "Fabulous Dustpan," a 1955 book by Frank Hoover, another of William "Boss" Hoover's sons.

"But who can engineer better than Murray Spangler?" Daniel replied.

"Murray's too clever with his hands," Herbert explained. "He can take a sick vacuum sweeper and repair it in 60 seconds. He can't imagine why any woman can't do the same."

So, in 1909, Hoover hired Francis Mills Case, an engineer from Cleveland, to redesign the electric sweeper to work better, last longer and require less maintenance. He added bearings; changed the housing from tin to aluminum; and most important, he moved the wheels back, so the entire 12-inch-long brush roll, instead of only 8 inches as before, could brush against the carpet. The suction lifted the carpet slightly, as the roller brush beat the carpet, freeing the dirt to be sucked out of the carpet and into the bag.

It worked marvelously.

The "Fabulous Dustpan" book chronicled the catharsis:

"Looks like we've got a brand new principle here, Mr. Case!" said an excited Herbert Hoover.

"No, Herb," Case scratched his chin. "I think we've got a very old one."

"Huh? What do you mean?"

"Well, for centuries women have been suspending their rugs over a clothesline to beat them in the wind. That's just what we're doing. Only we beat it 700 times a minute and our wind is stronger than nature's. We just moved that old cleaning principle indoors."

Although Spangler worked for Hoover at the time, it was Case's engineering work that made the cleaner saleable to the masses.

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James Murray Spangler was born Nov. 20, 1848 in Plains Township, Pa. He married Elesta Holtz on May 21, 1874. The couple moved to Akron six years later, then to Canton soon after.

Spangler toiled in a variety of jobs, mostly as a salesman. He worked on a host of inventions on the side — everything from a grain harvester to a wagon cycle for children. But none of his intellectual work panned into riches. By the early 1900s and in his 50s, Spangler landed a job as a janitor at Zollinger Department Store in downtown Canton, inside a building that would later become home to JC Penney, a structure that stands to this day at 111 Second St. NW.

The story of Spangler's electric suction sweeper invention was tied to his janitorial work at the store. 

Afflicted with asthma, he realized that dust kicked up by his cleaning of carpets with a Bissell commercial sweeper and broom was aggravating his condition and making him cough. Early vacuums were designed to blow dust out of carpets. After closely watching a rotary street sweeper in action, Spangler came up with the idea for a motor-powered sweeper. An early prototype used a sewing machine motor, ceiling fan blades and a wooden soap box for the body. Spangler modified it many times, bought Emerson motors and ultimately created a crude electric suction sweeper that cleaned the floors — minus the dust storm — of the store.

Spangler finally had an invention he could sell. 

 

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He filed paperwork for a patent in 1907. He ironed out some financing. He formed the Electric Suction Sweeper Company with Ray Harned, who worked for the owners of the Zollinger building. Spangler would make the vacuums; Harned would sell them. Turns out, Susan Hoover, who happened to be William "Boss" Hoover's wife and Spangler's cousin, bought one of the machines. But Spangler didn't have enough money to get very far. Even with his son, Clarence, and daughter, Jennie, helping, Spangler had no means to mass-produce.

Creditors began to demand payments.

Spangler tried selling his vacuums himself to make ends meet.

It was the summer of 1908. It was a time when William "Boss" Hoover's well-established leather goods business in New Berlin was about to lose a good chunk of its horse saddle and harness business, thanks to the introduction of the automobile and Henry Ford's imminent and relatively inexpensive Model-T. Turns out, it was the perfect time for Hoover to attempt to make something more of Spangler's as-yet unheralded invention.

According to "Fabulous Dustpan," one of Hoover's leather salesmen, T.F. Albee, was on friendly terms with Spangler. He knew Spangler was in a financial crisis that would sink the fledgling Electric Suction Sweeper Co. It was Albee who convinced Hoover that Spangler's invention had a market and could be sold.

"Ted, where could we find an expert who could tell us if that thing of Murray's is really commercial practical?" Hoover asked.

"Ever think of asking Susan Hoover?" Albee replied.

Soon after, over a glass of lemonade on William "Boss" Hoover's front porch in New Berlin, a deal was struck. Hoover owned the Electric Suction Sweeper Co. and Spangler remained on board as production supervisor and was paid a salary of $1,500 per year and royalties until the patent expired in 18 years. Two years later, the company was renamed Hoover Suction Sweeper. 

In 1922, it became Hoover Co.

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During his time working for Hoover, Spangler continued to dabble with more inventions and applied for more patents.

"In some ways, it looked like he was working on other things that would have been competitive with Hoover," said Gasko, the Vacuum Museum curator. "And getting a patent ... you had to get an attorney, pay a lot of money ... you'd only do that if you anticipated making money off it someday."

But Spangler's health began to fail.

He died on Jan. 22, 1915 at the age of 66.

The same year, his patent was assigned to Hoover Suction Sweeper Co.

Spangler did not have a last will and testament. His estate was administered in Stark County Probate Court. Paperwork regarding the finances of his estate is missing from the historical record, however.

Spangler and his wife, Elesta, had three children: Clarence, Francis and Jennie. Clarence and Francis had both worked as bookkeepers at Bucher & Gibbs Plow Co. Francis, suffering from tuberculosis, died on Feb. 17, 1906 at age 25. Clarence, who also worked for Hoover Suction Sweeper, died less than six years later, at age 35, in his parents' Canton home at 801 W. Lake St., inside a house that remains today at 801 12th St. NW.

Elesta Spangler, who along with their daughter, Jennie, made all the bags for the vacuums until 1914, died in 1941. Her estate was valued at about $150,000, according to court records, and all of it was left to Jennie, the last surviving lineal family relation.

Jennie married Harry Painter in 1921 and was widowed 20 years later — the same year her mother died. Jennie Painter remained in Canton — living at least most of the time in the same family home on 12th Street NW — until her death on April 15, 1963 at the age of 83. 

Court records show her estate was valued at $1.1 million. About half of it came from the sale of 15,200 type A common shares of Hoover Co. stock, which appears to have been held in a trust at Harter Bank & Trust.

With no children or husband, Jennie Painter's estate largely was split among about three dozen cousins, nieces and nephews and her housekeeper, Lena Loudon.

Jennie Painter and her husband were buried in Section U of West Lawn Cemetery, in the same area as her brothers, her mother and her father, James Murray Spangler, the inventor of the electric suction sweeper.

Reach Tim at 330-580-8333 or tim.botos@cantonrep.com.

On Twitter: @tbotosREP