This month’s Learning from InvENtors post highlights a “power couple” in the history of household cleaning…Anna and Melville Bissell.
Melville Reuben Bissell was born on September 25, 1843, in Hartwick, N.Y., and grew up in Berlin, Wisconsin. As a young adult Bissell moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan where he opened a grocery store with his father.
Anna Sutherland was born in the tiny fishing village of River John, Nova Scotia. As a young child, Anna moved with her family to De Pere, Wisconsin. After she completed her formal education, she became a teacher at age 16. She married Melville Bissell when she was 19 and became a joint partner in their crockery and china business.
Anna became frustrated by constantly cleaning sawdust and packing crate straw off the carpets without a good way to do so. To manage the build-up in the carpets, Bissell invented a sweeper which consisted of hog hair rollers that would pick up fine bits of dirt, which were then deposited into a small canister that could be emptied easily. This small device was a tremendous improvement to the existing sweeping machine of the time (an enormous hand-pumped, expensive and noisy device). And with that, Melville’s new and more effective sweeper was patented and sold as the Bissell carpet sweeper in 1876.
Homemakers were soon swept away by the efficient new cleaner and the Bissells rolled into floor care, leaving the pottery business in the dust.
The first factory was built in the early 1880s and the BISSELL® Company was officially formed in 1883 with Melville serving as its first president.
Anna became BISSELL’s ® top salesperson, traveling from town to town to sell the sweeper for the budget-conscious price of $1.50. She also persuaded major marketplaces, including Wanamaker’s (one of America’s first department stores), to carry the product.
After a fire destroyed the factory in 1884, Anna helped secure bank loans to rebuild it and they were quickly back in business.
When Melville passed away in 1889, there was no question who would take the reigns at BISSELL®. Anna stepped in, making her the first female CEO in America. Anna aggressively defended the company’s patents while also marketing sweepers across North America and Europe. It didn’t take long for BISSELL® to get its first famous fan, Queen Victoria, who insisted her palace be “Bisselled” every week.
Bissell was quite successful in her endeavors to popularize the sweeper and her success leading the company secured her status as one of the most powerful women in business. It was once said of her that
“She studied business the way other women studied French.”
Serving as president and CEO, Anna Bissell thrust the company into the international market and by 1899 she had created the largest organization of its kind in the world. She continued to oversee the details of production and was well known for her familiarity with every facet of the business.
By 1906, the company announced that its sweepers were “the only brand advertised nationally to consumers”.
Anna Bissell took a progressive approach to labor and was among the first business leaders of the time to provide her employees with pension plans and workers’ compensation. She was an active philanthropist in her city, sitting on many boards and founding the Bissell House, which offered recreational opportunities for youth.
Upon her death in 1934, she was described as “a successful business woman in an era where business was almost wholly a masculine field.”
More than 135 years after taking on the challenge of cleaning up a family shop, family-owned BISSELL Homecare, Inc. continues to innovate products that solve daily household needs. Sometimes it’s fun to get dirty, but then BISSELL® reminds us:
“Life’s messy. Clean it up.™”
The BISSELL® story started with a problem and turned into a household name. What problems can your idea solve? Share them today!