Local History
9:00 pm
Thu December 12, 2013

Bissell Sweepers company claims first female CEO in America

A 1909 ad for Bissell Sweepers

Years ago, the only way to clean carpets was to sweep them off with a broom and to hang them on a line and use a wire carpet beater, to beat the dust out. The next development was a carpet sweeper.

Sweepers have a long handle and a rectangle box at the end, where as you push it, rotating brushes pick up stuff on a carpet. Andrea Melvin, the collections curator at the Grand Rapids Public Museum says that in 1990 about 1500 sweepers from the Bissell Sweeper Company were donated to the museum. 

Andrea Melvin, the collections curator at the Grand Rapids Public Museum, holds an old Bissell Sweeper
Credit Nancy Camden

Melville and Anna Bissell had a china and crockery shop in Kalamazoo. They moved to Grand Rapids and opened another one. In 1876 Melville Bissell was unhappy with the mechanical sweeper that they had purchased to clean the carpets in the shop. His tinkering with it created a new sweeper that was very popular as they used it in the store. Melville began by making the wooden cases and received his first patent in 1876.

Melville and Anna Bissell had a marriage of partnership. Melville supported Anna working in the shop. She took charge of making the bristle components in the sweeper by hiring women to work at home to assemble the brush rollers. In 1883 Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company was incorporated and a factory was built.

In 1889, Melville passed away from pneumonia. Upon her husband’s death Anna Bissell was left five children and she stepped in to become CEO of the company. The Bissell Company proudly claims her as the first female CEO in America.

“She had stores all over the world, but also factories in Paris and Toronto,” says Andrea Melvin. "She had a base in London.”

Anna Bissell was progressive in worker’s compensation when it wasn’t really the thing to do. In the 1890’s she added paid vacations and pensions to benefits.

“When times were tough, she didn’t lay off employees, it seems," says Melvin. "She tended to try to shift them around the factory into different positions or reduce their hours. There was very little worker’s strife with the company. She felt that they were basically a family. The company was a family to her.”

In 1919, she handed the company over to her son Melville, Jr. but, she remained as chair of the board until her death in 1934. Anna Bissell left her legacy in Grand Rapids as a mother, equal partner in business, CEO of an international company, philanthropist and community leader.