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The sweeping success of the Bissells

Anna Bissell became America’s first female CEO late in the 19th Century.   | Photo Credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

The need for cleaning, both ourselves and our surroundings, probably dates back to early humans. There’s reason to believe that even our earliest ancestors, residing in caves, used the branches of trees to tidy up their dwellings.

For centuries, brooms, the likes of which are still in use today, remained the most popular tools used by people to clean their homes. In fact, it was only in the 19th Century that some of the big breakthroughs began to appear in the cleaning industry.

The challenge of cleaning

With bigger households came carpet flooring, and it soon became the staple of middle and upper middle class families in Europe and the Americas. Even though these carpets lent good looks, they were more challenging to clean than bare floors. Brooms were largely ineffective and deep cleaning once or twice a year by beating the carpet outdoors was no easy task either.

It was in such a climate that American businessman Melville Reuben Bissell invented his carpet sweeper. A serial entrepreneur, Melville had started out by setting up a grocery store with his father in 1862 at the age of 19. Melville married 19-year-old Anna Sutherland in 1865 and their entire family shifted locations in 1870, setting up a successful crockery and glassware store in the new place.

Sawdust and straws

One of the problems they faced in this business was the amount of mess that they had to clean up on their premises. The crockery and glassware came packed in wooden crates filled with straw or sawdust, and unpacking these before placing them in the store shelves left a lot of dirt that collected in the carpets.

Even though mechanical carpet sweepers were available from late in the 1850s, these were far from able to do the job at hand. Melville set about making his own mechanical carpet sweeper. He fitted his device with hog head rollers that picked up even fine dirt from carpets and also added a small canister to it. The collected dirt was deposited in this container, which could then be easily emptied after use.

While these improvements might seem rather minor to us, they provided a marked improvement in the way carpets could be cleaned back then. Melville received the patent for his improvements on September 19, 1876, and soon set about selling these carpet sweepers.

Anna was a natural when it came to sales and marketing. Seeing the potential of the product in their hands and realising that it would change the way housekeeping is done, Anna made plenty of sales calls, convincing shopkeepers to display their device. It wasn’t long before the orders started trickling in, and the upper floor of their crockery shop soon turned into their manufacturing space.

Roller-coaster ride

Having built the Bissell company’s first manufacturing plant to roll out carpet sweepers in 1883, the duo faced a severe setback the following year when a fire burnt down the factory in 1884. Not ones to be deterred easily, Anna and Melville secured loans to finance its reconstruction, and the Bissells were soon on the way to dominating the field.

Just when it seemed like things couldn’t be better, tragedy struck the Bissells as Melville died of pneumonia in 1889, aged just 45. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who should lead the company following his untimely demise. Now a mother of four children, Anna, who had been involved with the company’s business affairs right from the beginning, stepped in, becoming the first female CEO in the U.S.

Anna steered the company’s growth admirably in the decades that followed, defending their patents aggressively and taking their sweepers to Europe as well, apart from other parts of North America. Despite the company’s growing international reputation and her own status as one of the most powerful women in business of the time, Anna continued to be involved in the company’s day-to-day affairs and was known especially for her familiarity with all facets of the business.

Anna was a progressive employer for her time and their company was among the first to provide employees with pension plans and workers’ compensation. By the time she died in 1934, her company was one of the largest organisations of its kind in the world. Their company continues to be a privately owned, family-led company to this day, and remains a leader when it comes to home care products.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 4:33:20 PM |

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