Prior to the introduction of “electric suction cleaners”, most housewives used brooms and dust pans. Many of the mid-Victorian homes had large “Axminster” or “Turkish” carpets on the floors of principal rooms. In order to remove dirt, dust and animal dander from the nap of these floor coverings, the carpets were removed from the home and beaten with a device similar to an oversized fly swatter called a rug beater. Beginning in 1811 and again in 1858 many mechanical sweepers were invented. None of the machines worked very well and in some cases actually stirred up more dust then they picked up.
That was about to change thanks to an American couple living in Michigan. Anna and Melville Bissell owned a small crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While cleaning up after the day’s work, Anna often became frustrated with the sawdust that was embedded in the carpet. The tiny, stubborn particles clung to the carpet, and trying to sweep them up was becoming a time-consuming nuisance.
Anna presented the problem to Melville, her mechanically inclined husband. Melville designed and constructed a carpet sweeper machine that he hoped would solve the problem once and for all. His ingenious design was a success, and word of Melville Bissell’s carpet sweeper spread quickly. People soon began asking where they could purchase a sweeper for themselves. Although other companies made sweepers, those didn’t work very well. Melville’s sweeper was lighter, worked on uneven floors and picked up dirt without creating a cloud of dust. When people saw this, they wanted one, too.
As word of the Bissell sweeper got around, Melville and Anna loaded their buggy with carpet sweepers and sold them door-to-door, each taking opposite sides of the street. The brushes were made by local women in their homes, then assembled in a room above the store. The BISSELL Carpet Sweeper was patented in 1876, and in 1883 the first BISSELL manufacturing plant was built in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Following Melville untimely death in 1889, Anna Bissell stepped in and confidently took control of the company, becoming America’s first female corporate CEO. Under Anna’s aggressive and innovative management, The company soon began to look in new directions in product development and to expand their business to include all the continents of the world. Anna ran the company until her death in 1934, at age 87.
Today Bissell Inc. is an industry leader, with products sold in more than 60 countries. Still privately owned and still managed by the Bissell family, Bissell Inc. merits its own chapter in the history of American housekeeping.
Anna Bissell was not only one of the nation’s first female CEOs, she was also one of the first employers in America to provide employee health benefits.
Invention of the Carpet Sweeper courtesy of the Great Idea Finder.
Jon Backus, Collections up Close: Object of the Week, September 19, 2013.
Meredith TerHaar, “Statue of Anna Bissell dedicated along Grand River“, WZZM13.com, July 21, 2016.