Of Vacuum Cleaners and Obsolescence

What follows is the text of a letter I just wrote to the Kirby Company. Kirby makes vacuum cleaners. Really, really good vacuum cleaners. The Kirby I inherited from my grandmother a decade ago cost her more than I paid for my first car. Yet, I may very well hand it down to my daughter, it’s so well made.

Whither product quality?

“To Whom It May Concern:

“I was discussing the relative decline of product quality today with a friend. The subject of Kirby came up, as an example of a company that puts a very strong focus on product quality. I just wanted to pass along a personal story.

“My grandmother died 13 years ago at the ripe age of 86. She lived a good life. In that long life of hers, she owned exactly 2 vacuum cleaners, both of them Kirbys. I inherited the second one, which she bought 3 years before her death. The first one she received as a gift in the late 1930s.

“So that first Kirby lasted 50+ years. Because of her second vacuum’s heirloom status, I expect that I won’t need to buy another vacuum again until at least 2035.

“Thanks for making a truly great product! I wish more companies were as committed to quality as Kirby is, almost 100 years after its founding.

Sincerely,
Brian”

Most of our home appliances and the like today (especially computers and electronics) are built with planned obsolescence in mind. They’re only designed to last until the next version comes along. Think Swiffer, Microsoft Office 2000  and iPod 3G. Products have generations now. Today’s latest and greatest will be replaced sooner or later (usually sooner).

Certainly there have been many advancements in vacuum cleaner technology since Jim Kirby started making dirt separators in 1906. Yet Kirby continues to make a product that is built to last. They have improved their product regularly over the years, and the brand is one of the most respected in its industry. Why do so many companies make products that are built with their eventual demise in mind? Theoretically, one could repair a Kirby vacuum indefinitely. Certainly this would cost you far less over a lifetime than buying a new Hoover or Dyson at Costco every 5 years.

Dear reader, in your opinion, are there any other companies out there whose products are still built to last?

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4 thoughts on “Of Vacuum Cleaners and Obsolescence

  1. longhawl says:

    Brian,

    They are few and far between. Do you know consumer grade weed eaters are designed with a 40 hour lifetime in mind? This is the trend of current manufacturing for the most part. Unfortunately our “use it and toss it” and pursuit of the newest and greatest mindset only serves to encourage this.

    I’m an inveterate tinkerer and have this innate desire to keep something functioning as long as possible before disposing of it. Even then I wind up taking it apart and saving “important” pieces of it for future repairs and projects.

    Interestingly enough, one of the few items manufactured in this country that are for the most part still made with quality and designed to last are firearms. Pick up and look at something made by Ruger, Smith& Wesson, Remington, Savage. These are items made with pride and care, meant to be utilized and passed down and last for generations.

    • Brian says:

      I completely agree, though you didn’t mention Browning or Colt. Good stuff. I also think that Toro makes a pretty darn good lawnmower. If only GM or Chrysler could again produce cars that are made with quality and designed to last, they might stand a chance of survival against their European and Asian counterparts.

  2. Brian says:

    Good comments! I totally agree that buying unique pieces from local artists, artisans and craftspeople (or even making things yourself!) can be a very rewarding experience! Thanks for sharing!

  3. rockingjude says:

    Yes there are still companies out there but I guess the more important question is, “How many of these companies are American?”….

    Not many although there is a show called American Made which showcases some of these companies…

    I have long been an advocate of buying artist pieces whether it be a table or a bowl rather than anything mass produced.

    Yes it is more expensive, however I get to know the artist through his/her art, how they made it, what it was made out of and where the material came from…mostly recycled!!!

    Every time I look at a piece, all these things come together and give me great satisfaction that I KNOW to whom the money went to that did this beautiful work. Ergo, I seek out and support artists through our local art fairs and also the net….TY again for considering me a “friend” and asking for my opinion…

    ~jude

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