The Evolution of Cleaning: Top Cleaning Innovations of Yesterday and Today

By Anne Baley

  • The Evolution of Cleaning: Top Cleaning Innovations of Yesterday and Today
The Evolution of Cleaning: Top Cleaning Innovations of Yesterday and Today

Imagine beating your clothes against a rock or throwing sawdust on the floor to help pick up dirt and grime. In their time, these were accepted cleaning practices. People are constantly searching for better ways to clean their environment, with new cleaning innovations popping up every few years. The true landmark innovations, though, changed cleaning forever. Below is a time line of how they evolved, prompting the question: What will tomorrow bring?


  • 2,800 B.C.E. Soap is invented in what was then Babylonia, notes Soap History. (Historians have found that soap was a daily staple then, used both for cleaning and medicinal purposes.) Soap continues its popularity until the fall of the Roman Empire, when public sanitation as well as personal hygiene begin to be considered unimportant. The expected results in public health occur, with a higher rate of illness and disease. Soap's popularity resurges in the late 18th century when a French chemist creates an inexpensive soap manufacturing process. By the 1820s, soapmaking is an important industry.
  • 1797. Levi Dickenson, a Massachusetts farmer, grows broomcorn (sorghum) and makes a broom for his wife, as described in Broom Shop. Previous brooms were contraptions combining twigs and sticks and did little to remove finer dirt from the indoors. The newer broom has finer bristles and cleans exponentially better. The broom becomes so popular that entire broom-making industries crop up.
  • 1820s. The Shaker religious sect reinvents the shape of the corn broom, creating a round bunch of bristles wrapped with wire instead of broom straw, notes the Broom Shop. The round bundles are sewn flat in a row and attached to a handle, in a design that's still used today. In terms of cleaning innovations, it is a huge milestone.
  • 1860. Daniel Hess invents the first vacuum cleaner, as described in Improve. Calling it a carpet sweeper, he patents a machine with a rotating brush that uses a bellows system to suction up dirt from carpets.
  • 1886. Josephine Cochrane invents the first practical dishwashing machine, as chronicled in Gizmo Highway. She unveils it at the 1893 World's Fair. She then starts a company to manufacture the dishwashers, which later becomes KitchenAid.
  • 1900. The first electric clothes washer is introduced to the United States, notes The Great Idea Finder. It includes a rotating drum to agitate clothing. By the 1950s, manufacturers are creating modern push-button versions that were safer for both the clothes and the operator.
  • 1907. After figuring out that his carpet sweeper was the source of his asthma irritation, James Spangler invents the hand-held vacuum cleaner. According to the Ohio History Connection, Spangler's invention, with its cloth filter bag and cleaning attachments, is the first electric-powered version made for individual home use.
  • 1913. The Clorox company releases Clorox bleach, an antibacterial agent that goes on to save thousands of World War I soldiers' lives. In the days before penicillin, the antibacterial properties of bleach battled infection better than anything used before.
  • 1970. The natural movement that carried over from the 60s spurs manufacturers to create green cleaning products, a safer alternative to the harsh cleaning chemicals popular before then. Products like Simple Green and those created by Tom's of Maine begin to gain market share and continue to be popular today.
  • 1990s. Microfiber cleaning cloths are introduced in Sweden and shortly afterward, spread around the world. This cleaning cloth, which leaves no lint, is today considered the ideal cloth for wiping lenses, computer and TV screens, windows and food service areas.
  • 21st Century. Touch-free cleaning is introduced for floors. After spraying on a cleaning solution, workers use a high-intensity spray to remove the soil and germs, then employ an industrial-strength vacuum to remove the dirt and moisture from the floor. The result is a completely clean floor that's safe to walk on immediately after cleaning. No-touch systems are used prevalently today, even by crime scene experts and those who clean up toxic environments.

For more on the latest innovations in cleaning, click here.

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