Consider: Henry the Vacuum

The smile that sold a million units.

The frustrating thing about the size of our community (more than 1,000 and less than 5,000) is that getting a brand to participate can be tough. Some don’t answer. Looking at you Radio Flyer. What is the point of having a Chief Wagon Officer if he is not going to make himself available to talk wagons? 

There is a dated-looking vacuum store by my house that always makes me smile when I pass by. Most likely because when I peer in the window I am greeted by many smiling faces looking back at me. Those faces are on vacuum cleaners, but still. The fact that I can tell this to people and they immediately know what I’m describing when I mention Henry made me Consider this friendly utilitarian tool. 

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I first encountered Henry’s demented smile while in residence at university. Turns out he can be found everywhere from Buckingham Palace to office buildings to homes. Henry is a great starting point in the quest to answer many of life’s tough questions, such as: Why are there so many vacuum stores? What is it about British culture that leads to their obsession with vacuum innovation? What’s cooler, a Dyson or a Henry? Should more things have eyes?

Design

Vacuum cleaners were invented in the late 1880s. The first models were two-person machines, requiring one person to operate the bellows/pump and the other to actually do the cleaning. With the cost of domestic labour increasing, two-person machines were not exactly cost-efficient.

Modern vacuums all work on a similar principle: a fan sucks air into a bag and hopefully it catches some dirt in the process. Tom Gasko, vacuum historian and star of the story Swept Away: Falling for the Man with 600 Vacuums, said in a recent interview: “A vacuum cleaner from 1910 would clean the rug just as well as a modern vacuum cleaner from today.” Vacuum motors in the 1930s had motors that rotated at 5,000 RPM, while a modern Dyson rotates at 104,000 RPM. It is very debatable if the performance is actually any better.

Into this world comes Chris Duncan, the sole owner of Numatic. Numatic makes those commercial vacuums you might see a janitor riding at the mall and they also make over 32,000 Henry & Family vacuums per week. He started the business in 1969 when he found a niche selling reliable tools to suck coal dust and soot out of boilers. He did not have money to order molds or fabricate custom parts, so he used off-the-shelf components: an oil drum, an upside down washing bowl and furniture casters for wheels. It sounds a lot like being a contestant on the Junkyard Wars. This next part is where the magic happens. Bored at a trade show, Duncan dressed up one of his boiler cleaners and drew a face on it. Over the next couple of years, it took off and Henry launched in 1981. Even a hospital in Saudi Arabia bought an early model to encourage its young patients to help with the cleaning. ​

Junkyard Wars was a show where two competing teams who looked like breakdancers in bike helmets would fight it out to build vehicles out of junk they found in a scrap yard. / In case you have never seen a ride along vacuum, this is it.

People love inanimate objects with eyes. They love seeing faces in things, even when they are (debatably) not there. This has an actual name: Pareidolia. This tendency leads people to see deities in cheesies or grilled cheese, a man in the moon or a smiling face in a fried egg. It is hard to determine how much of Henry’s success is due to his eyes. 

Innovation

Office cleaning is a lonely job. It happens late at night and can be pretty solitary. Having a little red friend follow you around can make all of the difference. Henry became popular on job sites and in commercial settings as a professional tool and personal confidant. 

Customers noticed the distinctive look and started buying them for home. Ever since, Henry has become an icon. Over 37K people RSVP’d for a BYOHenry picnic in 2018.  In 2008, a builder was fired after being discovered “vacuuming his underpants” with one.

It is impossible to talk vacuums without acknowledging Britain’s other vacuum knight, James Dyson. While both he and Duncan have their MBE, Dyson and Duncan could not be more diametrically opposed. The Dyson Parts Guide has over 1,000 parts. It’s latest model has a laser! The Henry Parts Guide has 75. Dyson continually releases new models and has an extensive catalog. Numatic, the maker of Henry, has less than 20 in their residential line. It is a fascinating approach to a category. On one hand, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. On the other, a constant push to build a better mousetrap. 

Sustainability

Henry’s sustainability success comes from its local and consolidated manufacturing, reliability and backwards compatibility. All the parts are made and assembled in a factory in Chard England (including extruding the plastic). The vacuums were traditionally designed for commercial applications and have the reliability to live up to that. As well, you can use any part on a current Henry to repair a model that might be 35 years old. Unlike with a Dyson, there is no planned obsolescence.

Cost

A Henry is $399. The equivalent Dyson starts at $449. A Miele C1, the top rated canister vacuum is $599. As well, their reliability and ease of repair brings down total cost of ownership compared to more “sophisticated” models. On the resale market, they go for $200-$250. 

Henry exemplifies a great Considered product. It is incredible to see a product constantly improve in such a way that no versions are rendered obsolete. It is manufactured by fairly compensated labour and has seen its sales grow not by marketing, but by being freakin' adorable and sucking as well as something twice its size. 

If you can think of anything we have not covered that meets those qualifications, drop it in the comments or hit reply! We would love to consider it.

PS: There is not a robust Henry modding community, but that does not mean there are not some great mods out there. If you ever wondered what a Henry converted into a remote controlled blowtorch could do, see below.