Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Beat It!

QUESTION:  My sister-in-law purchased this item at a Goodwill Store in Maine.  It measures 14 1/2 inches from end to end, and the wire part is probably 3-4 inches across. Can you tell me what it is?

ANSWER: Though what you have looks like a rug beater, it’s size says it’s a feather pillow fluffer. These are similar to carpet beaters but smaller.

From colonial times until the latter 19th century, houses has wood-plank floors and area rugs that allowed housewives and servants to easily clean them. While the floors could be swept and washed, the rugs had to betaken outdoors and beaten, thus the invention of the carpet beater, a   tool of cleanliness and torture which played a major role in housekeeping right up to the 1980s.

Most carpet beaters consisted of a handle to which the makers attached a wire or wicker pleated or knot-like loop which they often coiled or intertwined. Some had wooden handles, others did not. Early beaters had clunky designs which made it awkward for the user to beat a carpet without going into contortions. Later, makers developed more ergonomically raised handles which allowed the user to stand at an angle to beat the carpet. Shapes of carpet beaters ranged from simple arcs, triangles, rectangles, and circles to more elaborate flowers and fanciful designs like rabbits, hearts, houses, geese, and teddy bears.

Nineteenth-century country stores and later mail-order catalogs displayed a variety of carpet beaters, selling for as little as 10 cents each. Typically made of wood, rattan, cane, wicker, spring steel, or three millimeter coiled wire, the Sears Roebuck catalog offered premium versions for 45 cents each as late as their 1903 catalog. Thrift-minded rural dwellers often twisted their own beaters, attaching their creations to odd pieces of wood or pieces of old broom handles. Manufacturers such as  Woods, Sherwood and Company and the Johnson Novelty Company sold millions of them from the Civil War period to well after World War II.

Most housewives and servants beat their carpets in the backyard, limiting cleaning to good weather. Where they lived in apartments or tenements, they hung their carpets out of windows or over fire escape railings to beat them. Passers-by often had to change their route to avoid walking through a cloud of dust and dirt.

Later, companies began making less expensive beaters from rattan. These conjured up exotic locales for housewives who donned their headscarves and aprons to beat their carpets into cleanliness and their children into submission.

Housewives beat everything from carpets, rugs, clothes, cushions, and bedding, as well as their children, the former to clean them, the latter to punish them. Mothers in the Netherlands and northern Belgium used carpet beaters to discipline their children by making them bend over and spanking them on their behinds, leaving a distinctive pattern on their child's bare backside. And since they beat their rugs in their  backyards, they tended to do the same when punishing their children, thus drastically increasing the embarrassment quotient for them. This disciplinary use caused the carpet beater to become not only a symbol for good housecleaning, but also for conservative family values and child rearing, as well as a symbol of the dominant position of the mother in Dutch families.

Another side effect of the carpet beater was its ability to produce intense satisfaction in the user, especially if the person suffered from repressed rage. Wielding these wand-like devices enabled housewives to vent their frustrations on their carpets and bedding rather than their families. Perhaps that’s why there’s more family violence today with the proliferation of electric vacuum cleaners.

The modern vacuum first appeared back in the 1870s, but it wasn’t until the first decade of the 20th century that several different companies claimed they had invented the modern electrical vacuum cleaner. And while the electric vacuum cleaner took a long while to catch on, the arrival of hand carpet sweepers signaled the demise of the carpet beater, and by 1908 carpet beaters had all but disappeared from the sales catalogs. But with the onslaught of the Great Depression, carpet beaters once again gained popularity.

A variation of the carpet beater was the smaller "pillow fluffer" used to fluff feather pillows.

Carpet beaters have become a popular collectible. Before eBay, carpet beaters sold for $20-40 in antique shops and in shows. But now on eBay even the rarest ones go for just a few bucks.

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