Business leader and philanthropist Anna Bissell was born on December 2, 1846 in River John, Nova Scotia, Canada. She married Melville Bissell when she was 19. Melville invented a new floor and carpet sweeper to clean sawdust and debris off their crockery factory floor more efficiently. The new device led to the creation of The Bissell Company which manufactured sweepers and later vacuums. After her husband's death, Anna Bissell took over the company in 1889, becoming America’s first-ever woman CEO. Under her leadership the company was highly successful and expanded to international markets. She died on November 8, 1943 in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Early Life and Crockery Business
Anna Sutherland was born in the tiny fishing village of River John, Nova Scotia. As a young child, Anna moved with her family to Du Pere, Wisconsin and she completed all the formal education available to her, becoming a school teacher at age 16. At the age of 19, she married Melville Reuben Bissell (1843 - 1889). Working as his business partner, she quickly became active in her husband’s crockery business located in Kalamazoo, Michigan (which was later relocated to Grand Rapids in 1871). But it wasn’t the couple's crockery business that would make Bissell a household name.
A New Invention Leads To The Bissell Company
The Bissell Company emerged out of the nuisance of cleaning sawdust, dirt and straw generated in the crockery factory. To manage the build-up in the carpets, Melville invented a sweeper which consisted of hog hair rollers that would pick up fine bits of dirt, which were then deposited into a small canister that could be emptied easily. This small device was a tremendous improvement to the existing sweeping machine of the time (an enormous hand-pumped, expensive and noisy device). And with that, Melville’s new and more effective sweeper was patented and sold as the Bissell carpet sweeper in 1876. Anna became Bissell’s top salesperson, traveling from town to town to sell the sweeper for the budget-conscious price of $1.50. She also persuaded major marketplaces, including Wanamaker’s (one of America’s first department stores), to carry the product.
The first Bissell factory was built in the early 1880s and the Bissell Company was officially formed in 1883 with Melville serving as its first president. After a fire destroyed the factory in 1884, Anna helped secure bank loans to rebuild it and they were quickly back in business. In 1889, Melville Bissell died of pneumonia at the age of 46 and Anna took control, becoming America's first woman CEO. Running the company as a widowed single-mother of five, she aggressively marketed the sweepers and organized the details of making, assembling, and delivering orders for them. Not only was the Bissell sweeper enormously popular with women in the United States, England's Queen Victoria insisted that her palace be “Bisselled” every week. Bissell was quite successful in her endeavors to popularize the sweeper and her success leading the company secured her status as one of the most powerful women in business. It was once said of her that "she studied business the way other women studied French."
Serving as president and CEO, Anna Bissell thrust the company into the international market and by 1899 she had created the largest organization of its kind in the world. She continued to oversee the details of production and was well known for her familiarity with every facet of the business. As head of the company, Bissell took a progressive approach to labor and was amongst the first business leaders of the time to provide her employees with pension plans and workers’ compensation. Upon her death, she was described as "a successful business woman in an era where business was almost wholly a masculine field."
Beyond her acumen and success in the business world, Anna Bissell was also a philanthropist. She served on the executive committee of the Red Cross and also supported the work of the Union Benevolent Association, later the Blodgett Memorial Medical Center, and worked on behalf of the adoption of children as a board member for the Blodgett Home for Children. She was also a member of the Women's City Club and Zonta through which she promoted opportunities for women in business. As a member of the King's Daughters Club (which carried out charitable projects), Anna founded the Bissell House (1897-1912) which offered recreational opportunities for youth, such as sports, music, and drama and training programs for women in business skills, gardening, and the arts. Her civic dedication did not go unnoticed. Bissell received countless awards, including induction into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Today, the company built by a partnership between husband and wife is still owned and operated by the Bissell family. To honor her legacy, on July 21, 2016, a statue of Bissell was unveiled in Grand Rapids near where she and her husband built their factory in the 1800s.
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