One of my favorite objects in the Hamill House collection is one that you would not expect. Among the more flashy items like swords, Victorian needlework, William Arthur Hamill’s book collection, and exquisite furniture is one piece that quite possibly has one of the best stories of all. In the corner of the kitchen, sits one of the most successful inventions in American history.
Melville and Anna Bissell two of Grand Rapids many business owners. they owned a crockery business, and created home products for the residents of the Michigan town. One of the main complaints Melville and his wife Anna had was cleaning up after a long day’s work. With sawdust and debris all over the shop getting it effectively clean was always a challenge. Melville decided to take this problem head on. He developed a revolutionary new cleaning product. He created a device that when pushed would rotate brushes that could pull fine pieces of sawdust off the floor off the Bissell shop floor. Meville went on to patent the floor sweeper in 1876. After several demonstrations of the new technology, people were very impressed. A new business was born.
Anna Bissell turned into the company’s best salesperson. In addition to going to door-to-door, she introduced the floor sweeper into Wanamaker’s Department Store. Wanamaker’s was one of the first department stores in the United States and was based out of Philadelphia. She also traveled extensively to market and sell the new sweeper. The floor sweeper was priced at a $1.50 (1). This price was affordable for working families that wanted an effective cleaning product.
By 1883, The Bissell Company was officially created. Sadly, they lost their first factory to fire in 1884. Anna’s stalwart dedication paid off in the securing of several loans to help rebuild the factory and business. Tragedy would strike again in1889 when Melville succumb to pneumonia.
Anna Bissell stepped to the forefront and took over as CEO of the company. In the process she became the first female CEO in American history. It was during this period of time that the sweeper company really exploded. Under Anna’s direction, Bissell became a world-wide name. Apparently, the sweeper was such a hit with Queen Victoria that she wanted her palace cleaned with the sweeper on a weekly basis (2). She was a master of business, and “studied business, the way other men studied French” (3).
With Anna in charge, Bissell became a very progressive company. She felt strongly in giving her employees health benefits and workman’s compensation benefits before it was required by law (4). These progressive policies, and attentiveness to employee concerns made her a very popular CEO. She truly ushered the Bissell company into the 20th Century with these policies. She also masterly managed all of the companies patents, and by 1899 the company was the world leader in home cleaning appliances (5).
Anna Bissell was an ardent philanthropist. She was part of several church organizations that ensured young people could have recreational and support programs. Bissell also contributed to causes such as the Bissell House which helped improve the lives of children and immigrant women in Michigan.
For her great acumen as a business woman and philanthropist, she was inducted into the Michigan Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1989. In addition, a statue of Anna was placed on the site of the original Bissell factory to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the company.
The No. 5 Bissell Floor Sweeper is one of the fascinating items in the collections of Historic Georgetown. The story behind the sweeper and the woman who took the company into the 20th Century is an even more fascinating story. We are proud to have one of these amazing products on display in our museum.
(1). Worthen, Merideth Retrieved from Biography.com
(2). Worthen, Merideth Retrieved from Biography.com
(3). Worthen, Merideth Retrieved from Biography.com
(4). Greater Grand Rapid’s Woman’s History Council
(5). Greater Grand Rapid’s Woman’s History Council
“Anna Bissell Statue Unveiled on Historic Former Site of Bissell Corporation”. Retrieved from: https://www.bissell.com/news/anna-bissell-statue-unveiled-on-historic-former- site-of-bissell-corporation
Worthen, Merideth. “Anna Bissell Biography”. A&E Television Networks. 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.biography.com/people/anna-bissell-032216
“Anna Sutherland Bissell”. Retrieved from: http://www.ggrwhc.org/seven-women-bissell
“Our History”. Date Retrieved: 9/13/2016. Retrieved from: https://www.bissell.com/about-us/our-history