Posted By whatsitworth on April 12, 2013
March has been Women’s History Month. The National Women’s History Project is a non-profit organization started in Santa Rosa in 1980. According to its website, NWHP acts as a clearinghouse providing information and training in multicultural women’s history for educators, community organizations, and parents-for anyone wanting to expand their understanding of women contributions to U. S. The theme chosen for 2013 Women’s History month is
Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination.
I thought I’d commemorate the month by highlighting Anna Bissell’s contribution to innovation through imagination – and plain frustration – as America’s first female Chief Executive Officer of a manufacturing company.
Anna and her husband Melville Bissell owned a crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The dust from the crockery, combined with the sawdust used to package the items, got embedded in their carpets and aggravated Melville’s allergies. Frustrated, Anna was determined to find an effective and efficient way to achieve cleanliness and hygiene in her home.
In the mid 19th century, the only way to clean a carpet was to take it outside and beat it – a springtime task performed annually in the best households. However, the 19th century also gave rise to the idea that machinery could and would make lives more pleasant. To this end two separate carpet cleaning systems were developed.
The fist used large fans to blow the dust off the surface of the carpets: this was unsatisfactory as the dust just settled elsewhere. In 1869 an English inventor improved on this by patenting the first “sweeping machine.” This enormous hand pumped machine would suck dust up into a series of pipes and out into the street. While popular, this invention was inconvenient and expensive; the noise was said to scare horses.
Unsatisfied with either of these systems, Anna Bissell encouraged her husband to design a better machine. Melville’s machine used tufts of hog bristles inserted into rollers to pick up fine bits of dirt. The dirt would then be confined in a small canister that could be emptied away from the home. After bringing their invention to Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876, the couple immediately secured orders for dozens more. They patented their sweeper the same year.
For the first several years, neighborhood women doing piecework in their homes assembled the components and the sweepers – the factory was not built until 1883. Melville died in 1889 leaving Anna with four small children. Rather than sell her successful company after his death, Anna took control of the company, serving as America’s first female CEO. She aggressively marketed the sweepers and had a hand in the development of new products.
The Bissell Company is still family owned today and the basic technology of their carpet sweepers has changed very little over the generations. You can buy a new one today for about $30: vintage wooden Bissell sweepers – with wooden canister and paper decals – sell for about the same price.
I certainly hope Anna, as chief executive of the Bissell Company – was able to hire someone to sweep her carpets.