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A Clean Sweep in a Dirty Business – Vintage Street Sweepers

Perhaps through time, being a street sweeper has been one of the less appreciated jobs to be held by a public works employee. As long as the horse was a means of transport, the removal of equine waste and general sanitation in the streets has been a priority in cities around the world, and the arduous clean-up was done by hand

Early street sweepers used brooms and shovels to clean litter, animal waste and dirt. With the advent of pressurized city water, large hoses were used afterward rinse the streets. Starting in the 1850s, horse-drawn machines with a large rotary brushes began to be used for sweeping. If you take a look at patents at the time, many were issued to inventors who came up with a multitude of designs.

John S. Muir Syndicate 1903 Steam-Powerer Street Sweeper

  • John S. Muir Syndicate steam-powered street sweeper featured in “The Automobile” October 31, 1903 issue. Image courtesy of the AACA Library & Research Center.

Units powered by steam soon became common, and the 1903 machine above built by the John Muir Syndicate in New York served as the inspiration for this article. As soon as the gasoline engine was developed and became reliable it was quickly applied and the first motorized street sweeper came about.

The field was wide open to inventors and manufacturers, but the first unit that became popular in time was the Elgin Street Sweeper built by the American Tower and Tank Company in Elgin, Ill. Inventor John M. Murphy approached the Company about having them build it, and after two years of perfecting the machine the first unit was sold in 1913 to the City of Boise, ID.

Emerson Contracting 1911 Street Sweeper

  • Emerson Contracting Co. of N.Y.C. demonstrated this machine in New York. Image from “Automobile Topics” March 25, 1911 issue.

John M. Murphy 1913 Elgin Street Sweeper Patent

  • John M. Murphy’s 1913 street sweeper patent drawing – the patent was granted late in 1917.

Murphy continued refining his design and soon “The Elgin” became the most popular sweeper in the US. The lead image in the post from a “The Automobile” 1919 issue shows one in New York City with a mind-boggling arrangement of open roller chains that drove the various parts of the machine.

The image below of “The Elgin” was a part of a Baldwin Chain Company advertisement in the “Automobile Trade Journal” May 15, 1925 issue.

Early Elgin Street Sweeper

  • Baldwin Chain Company advertisement the “Automobile Trade Journal” May 15, 1925 issue.

F.W.D. Street Sweep 1913

  • Four Wheel Drive Company sweeper-washer – “Automobile Trade Journal” June 1913, issue. 

The Waycleanse Street Sweeper

  • The Way-Cleanse Co. of Sandusky, Ohio was successfully operating its machine in St. Louis, MO for over a year when it was featured in the “Auto Trade Journal” August 1917 issue.

Moreland Truck Street Sweeper Los Angles 1917

  • Four 1917 Moreland Truck sweepers with vacuum units were being successfully used in Los Angeles. Image the “Motor Age” Feb. 15, 1917 issue.

1948 Elgin Street Sweeper Patent

  • Inventor C.W. Mott’s 1948 patent drawing for the Elgin Sweeper granted in 1952.

Austin-Western Motor Sweeper

  • Austin-Western Model 40 Motor Sweeper – Image courtesy of the S. F. Department of Public Works.

1950s Wayne Street Sweeper

  • 1950s Wayne Street Sweeper- image county of the City of Buffalo, New York.
  • .
  • R.F. Schmidt’s 1964 Patent Drawing for the Elgin Sweeper Co.

Elgin Sweeper Co. 1966 Patent


14 responses to “A Clean Sweep in a Dirty Business – Vintage Street Sweepers

  1. Now here’s something you don’t see much anymore. I heard, waaaaay before my time, horse droppings were a HUGE problem. Something that was kind of “swept under the rug”, but can you imagine on a hot humid day, on a busy street back then? Disgusting. In Milwaukee, we had street sweepers come by all the time. I’m sure they were Elgin’s, and we, as kids, called them “tiddly-winks”. ( not sure why) When I worked at the asphalt plant years ago, we had a sweeper, a “Wayne”, I believe, and it was the job to have. It had the cab of an IH truck. A dirty job, but you were all on your own, and as long as there was a cloud of dust in the air, the boss left you alone. I remember it had a loooong chain on one side that ran all the brushes, ( kind of like the lead photo) and it would keep flying off. Then there was the time a rookie forgot to empty the hopper ( a door in the middle on the bottom opened up to dump the dirt) and when he hit the dump lever, he got stuck as the pile was too big to drive away from. Ah yes, the street sweeper. We’d be up to our elbows in poop without them.

    • My grandfather had a very small business, Troy Van & Storage in Troy NY, and was the last user of “horsepower” in the city until the city pretty much forced him to convert to gas power about 1932 when he gave up horses and bought a 1-1/2 ton International truck. Road apples were a large part of the reasons.

  2. The Elgin Pelican that is still sold and used in many large cities still uses the same basic design elements that Mr. Murphy came up with for the original Elgin. The Elgin Sweeper Co., now a subsidiary of Federal Signal, is still the leading street sweeper manufacturer in the US and still builds them in Elgin, IL

    I retired from Elgin Sweeper after 20 years service.

  3. There’s a forlorn street sweeper in Fresno that looks just like the Austin-Western model 40 pictured here. Can’t be many left. I always thought some movie director needs it for authenticity. I picture it in some big-city film noir scene going by at night underneath the night-time street lights, steam eminating up from the pavement as it passes…
    Alas, the last few years has not been kind to the sweeper. A grass fire burned part of the rear rounded section, which was later badly dented as it was pushed around un-gloriously by some ham-fisted equipment operator. I fear it will soon be sent to the scrapper.

    • How about this: Why not find how much they want to sell it to you. Then you could refurbish it and send it to antique car shows where I am sure it would be a hit.

  4. Those exposed chains in the first picture would cause a modern OH & S person to have a heart attack – no machine guarding back then!

  5. I can just picture the $ signs going “ka-ching”in the chain salesman’s eyes when he walked in the door to make a bid and laid eyes on the prototype. No wonder the Baldwin Co. used it in an ad.

  6. Ever been to Mackinac Island, MI? No motorized vehicles allowed on the island
    ( except for emergency vehicles ); everything done with horse-power. Cleanup is constant, using the Armstrong method–shovel, broom, and wheelbarrow.

  7. Another manufacturer of these was the Fox Rotary Snow Broom Co. 2 Lombardy St., Newark, NJ advertised on pp.516 of the April 1922 issue of The American City. This mag is a treasure trove of this type of thing. Brown U . has a run of this mag and some are also on HathiTrust.

  8. I remember the Elgin Brand on the Sweeper: Edwin Hedderly, at age 80 when I was 16 — collected the steel bristles from the roller and the side “cone shaped ” smaller brush(es). WHY??? they were made from a very special Highly Researched Steel Alloy!!! Why? so they would endure the torture of flexing and pavement surface wear on each blade of those 2 wheel types!!! Their alloy is typically very strong spring steel designed ONLY for “street sweeping bristle duty” ( from a VERY long time ago!!! Edwin H. used them for a variety of Automotive, Household , and “other”.applications — (TOP quality product for free!!!) Now, I challenge ALL of you to come up with something more unique or More Important on a Street Sweeper, — than this little Giant of a product!!! Edwin drove a ’31 Lincoln Four Door V-8 Sedan, anywhere , —from new until he passed! WOW, what TORQUE! The car was on the highest passes in the Sierras, every year!!! Edwin W.

  9. I like all the pictures you have of how street sweepers have changed over the years. That’s interesting that some street sweepers were even powered by steam. I do a lot of cycling, so I appreciate it when streets are free of debris. It makes it so I have fewer flat tires when I go out for rides. Thanks for the post.

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