The Real Deal
In this life women are expected to grow up, get married and support your husband while maintaining a household. But there are a few out there who is an exception that juggles both.
Yes! Although it is possible in our day and age, what if I told you that it was achievable in the 1800s?
Anna Bissell seems like an ordinary woman in the 1800s. She grew up, got married, and supported her husband in his ventures. But like Margaret Knight, Anna was also the real deal overcoming the challenges of building a megabrand and being a female executive during Victorian times.
Let’s get to know Anna Bissell who took over the reins of Bissell Carpet Sweeper Co. as a widow and built it into the largest company of its kind at the time.
Early Life of Anna Bissell
Like Elijah McCoy, Anna Sutherland was born in the land of Great White North, Canada on December 2, 1846. In the fishing village of River John in Nova Scotia, she became the newest family member of maritime captain William Sutherland and his wife, Eleanor Putnam Sutherland.
As a young girl, Anna and her family moved to Du Père in Wisconsin, and, like many immigrants to the USA at that time, her father settled seeking a better life, education, and business opportunities with hopes of living the American dream.
Anna Bissell’s Early Career and Marriage
Anna Sutherland was a bright young girl, eager to learn and excel in life. Anna was educated in America and finished her academic training at the age of sixteen. Wasting no time, she became a teacher immediately after graduating.
Three years later, she married Melville Bissell, a young porcelain trader and inventor, and began using her new name, Anna Sutherland Bissell.
Anna and Melville had five children from the marriage; Anna Dotelle, Lillie May, Melville Reuben, Harvey, and Irving Joy.
The young couple moved to Kalamazoo and, later, in 1871, to Grand Rapids in Michigan, searching for a greener pasture, and it was there that her life took a turn.
Foray Into Business
Melville Bissell followed the footsteps of his father as a porcelain and chinaware merchant. But this crockery business, although wildly successful, was not what would make Anna Bissell’s name.
Immediately, Anna Bissell became personally involved in her husband's business, helping to distribute and sell porcelain, crockery, and chinaware. She became a power entrepreneur just like Ruth Handler, the creator of Barbie.
When Anna Bissell was about 30 years old, she noticed that dust was always collecting on the office and home carpets whenever she opened any chinaware shipping boxes. And that this dust was challenging to get off.
This challenge led to a big opportunity to the Bissells.
Needed: A Better Way to Clean
Keeping floors free of dust and dirt has long been a physically tough and time-consuming task. People have used brooms to clean their houses for ages. The first mechanical breakthrough in sweeping did not occur until the 19th century.
People need increasingly effective cleaning solutions as house sizes and furniture expanded. Carpeting became popular in middle-class and upper-middle-class homes in the latter part of the 19th century, although it was more difficult to maintain than bare flooring. On a carpeted floor, sweeping up dust and debris with a brush proved ineffective—it merely scattered dust everywhere.
"Deep cleaning" one's carpets was a time-consuming task. Carpets were removed once or twice a year, dragged outdoors, and thrashed with a carpet beater. The carpet had to be replaced in the room.
Sweeping the Market
Melville Bissell responded immediately, inventing the first manually operated carpet sweeper. His wife, Anna Bissell, also saw potential in this innovation and proceeded to aggressively advertise it. Melville turned his attention to the problem of dust noticed by Anna and the potential large market it could have.
This led to her husband’s first invention–Bissell brooms. A carpet sweeper was invented and patented in 1876. Mechanical carpet sweepers first appeared in America in the mid-nineteenth century.
A rotary brush was attached to a pair of driving wheels in carpet sweepers. The brush spun as the sweeper was moved, sweeping up and depositing dirt into a receptacle that could be readily emptied.
It was an enormous hand-pumped, expensive and noisy machine. The sweeper had components of hog hair rollers and a small canister. The hog hair rollers would pick up tiny bits of dirt, then deposit this dirt into the canister.
This equipment was quite an improvement from the regular sweepers that were in existence then. It was fitted with rubber tires as rollers to make it even more efficient.
Melville, the carpet sweeper inventor, noticed how effective and efficient the sweeper was and decided to make it. Anna thus became the carpet sweeper’s salesperson.
Anna’s new job responsibilities necessitated her traveling to neighboring towns to promote the new carpet sweeper. She spent several years coordinating carpet sweeper manufacturing and distribution, traveling widely and personally doing demonstrations to hundreds of consumers. She first sold the product for $1.5.
During this time, Anna Bissell gained an understanding of corporate operations, employee management, customer service, and after-sales service. Her efficiency also created a vast market base for the product.
One of the businesses she persuaded to stock the carpet sweeper was Wanamakers, one of America’s first department stores. As the salesperson, she always had to assemble the product parts during her demo with clients.
Given how well consumers received the sweeper, they decided to stop the crockery business and focus solely on producing the sweepers in bulk.
Thus in the early 1880s, Melville and Anna built the Bissell factory, and by 1883, the Bissell Company was officially founded.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
In 1844, Bissell’s factory was gutted by fire, where the carpet sweepers were made.
Anna demonstrated her economic acumen by promptly obtaining a large bank loan required for the total repair of a carpet sweeper plant that had been destroyed in a fire. Given their booming business and glowing references, she was able to acquire the loan.
In order to rebuild the factory after it burned down, the Bissell family mortgaged their home and other property. In three weeks, the factory was up and running again.
But this was not the end of their woes.
Five years after restarting the company, Anna’s husband, Melville Bissell, died at the age of 46 in 1889 of Pneumonia.
Anna took over running the company as the Chief Operating Officer and as a widowed single mother of five children. Eventually, she became the Chief Executive Officer to head a registered company, Bissell Corporation, and that’s how she became the first female in America as Bissell’s CEO mirroring Madam C.J. Walker as America’s first female self-made millionaire.
Immediately after taking over as CEO, she secured trademarks and patents to prevent the privacy of the carpet sweepers. She also instituted marketing guidelines given her experience with generating sales.
A decade later, under her leadership, the Bissell Company became the largest manufacturer of the old fashioned carpet sweepers globally. Bissell Company is producing 1000 sweepers each day.
Along with its branch office in New York, Bissell opened factories in London, Paris, and Toronto, as well as offices in 22 foreign countries. The company exported products to Latin America and Europe.
Workman’s Compensation Policy
In 1919, Anna became the President of the board. With this new position, she began an overhaul to modernize the company.
She instituted, in the company, novel fixed work hours and annual leaves for her employees. She also introduced the workman’s compensation policy, such as the restitution of payments to injured workers on duty.
In addition to these policies, she created a pension plan to cater to employees’ upkeep after retirement from the company. From 1889 to 1919, Anna exhibited vast knowledge of the company’s business structure and market.
Anna Bissell’s diligence thrust the company into the international market. Her sweepers were very popular with women in the United States and abroad. The English Queen Victoria ordered that her palace be “Bisselled” every week.
As a result of the employee benefits she introduced and her personal touch in everything, she was seen as a mother figure to her workers. Anna Bissell’s business mind and entrepreneurial capabilities turned her to the pinnacle of benchmarking in the carpet sweeper industry.
History once said that she studied business the way other women studied French.
Anna Bissell's Philanthropy
Anna’s innovation was not relegated to the business world enough. She was quite an addition to society in terms of philanthropy. Anna Bissell not only donated but also participated in various charitable events.
She also served as a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church board member and the Blodgett Children’s Home and Memorial Medical Center.
In addition to the above, she was active in social clubs focused on women’s empowerment. The Ladies Literary Club, Women’s City Club, Zonta, and the Clark Memorial Home, were all associations with which she was deeply involved.
She served on the executive committee of the Red Cross and supported the Union Benevolent Association. She founded the Bissell house in Grand Rapids in 1897.
This house was a center from which immigrants could be assimilated into society.
The Bissell House provided recreational opportunities such as sports, drama, and music programs for the youths. It also offered training programs for women in business skills, arts, and gardening. The house, however, shut down in 1912.
Her impact was so felt in society that she was admitted into the National Hardware Men’s Association as the only female member.
End of an Era
Anna Sutherland Bissell died November 8, 1934, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She is buried at Oakhill Cemetery, also in Michigan; and had outlived her husband by 45 years. Till her death, she remained the chair of the company’s board.
At her death, she was acclaimed as “a successful businesswoman in an era when business was almost wholly a masculine field.” And newspapers said she was “a business executive without peer, a respected and beloved philanthropist, and a true matriarch in her family.”
Honors of Anna Bissell
She was honored by the Grand Rapids community with a statue in 2006.
The commemorative statue is located where she and her husband built the first factory in the 1800s. Bissell was honored with a seven-foot (2.1 m) statue in July 2016. It can be seen in Grand Rapids, Michigan, outside the DeVos Place Grand Gallery.
Ann Hirsch designed the bronze statue with the inscription "Anna Bissell (1846-1934)." and was sponsored by the Peter Secchia family.
Bissell's home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, known as the Bissell House, no longer exists; however, its location is currently bought and occupied by NBC television affiliate station WOOD-TV.
She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989.
Anna Bissell’s Legacy
Bissell Company changed its name, under Anna, to The Bissell Corp in 1923 and Bissell Inc., in 1959. Her carpet sweepers evolved into what we now know globally as vacuum cleaners. But the million dollar question is who owns Bissell now?
Today, this company built by Anna and Melville is still functioning as a family business, run by the younger Bissell generation. The Bissell family are keeping the legacy alive from their ancestors who invented the carpet sweeper to modern vacuum cleaners. Currently, the Bissell CEO is Mark J. Bissell.
Based on sales, Bissell Inc. is the biggest brand in floor-care appliances, holding about 20% of the North American market share. Bissell Inc’s net worth is estimated around $800 million.
The company’s products have expanded to include deep cleaning machines, products specifically for removing pet hair, etc.
Bissell Inc’s SpotBot is the first portable deep cleanser designed for pets. And under Cathy Bissell, Founder of BISSELL Pet Foundation (BPF) and wife to Anna’s descendant, Mark, the company supports the animal community.
Since its inception in 2011, the Bissell Pet Foundation has donated more than $2 million towards efforts to protect dogs and cats. With its corporate headquarters still in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the company is currently worth about $1 billion with over 2500 employees. The famous breakfast cereal creators, Will & John Harvey Kellogg, also created a legacy in Michigan and it still stands in the same location today.
Key Takeaway: Anna Bissell
One thing that stands out in Anna Bissell’s story is her willingness and diligence to learn.
This is a valuable lesson to entrepreneurs and leaders today. It’s not okay to know just one part of the business. Have knowledge of it all. That you delegate and have others working for you does not mean you should not have at least the most basic knowledge about the different facets of your business.
After all, knowledge is power. And Anna Bissell was one powerful woman.