February 9, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Melville Bissell

Is it more improbable that the Bissell name is known at all or that it is still known today? There were carpet sweepers patented 200 years before Melville Bissell brought his first mechanical sweeper on the market in 1876 and his sweeper itself should have been swept away with the popularization of the vacuum cleaner fifty years later. But people are still “Bisselling,” just as they did a century ago.

Melville and Anna Bissell sold crockery in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The fragile glass and china arrived in their shop packed tightly in sawdust stuffed in crates. Invariably the dust would spill on the floors and rugs, irritating the Bissells’ allergies. Among the many carpet sweepers available at the time Melville Bissell selected the “Welcome” to pull the allergy-inflaming dust from his rugs.

A lifelong tinkerer, Bissell found his new carpet sweeper lacking and set out to make a few improvements on his own. His model used floor wheels and angled bristles to fling debris up into a removable compartment. He was quite satisfied with his new invention and when several patrons inquired about the device, the now clear-eyed Bissell converted the second floor of the crockery store into a carpet sweeper assembly area.

The timing was right in America. New scientific research into the dangers of germs and filth spurred a new devotion to housecleaning. Still, the spread of the Bissell name from a small crockery store in Grand Rapids to every household in America was not achieved without dedicated missionary work, mostly performed by Anna Bissell. While her husband supervised the shop as its capacity grew to 30 machines a day Anna Bissell visited shopkeepers, many over and over, until she was able to win in-store demonstrations and displays for the Bissell sweeper across Michigan.

Early product information stressed the mechanical marvels of the Bissell sweeper, touting product innovations to homemakers who just wanted clean rugs. When a young company bookkeeper persuaded the Bissells to emphasize the cases constructed of “golden maple, opulent walnut and rich mahogany” sales soared. When Bissell introduced a limited edition sweeper crafted from rare vermilion wood from the jungles of India the advertising emphasized how the wood was dragged by elephants to the banks of the Ganges River. Bissell sold more sweepers in six weeks than it had the previous year.

In 1883 the Bissells moved into a new five-story brick factory which was gutted by fire almost immediately. Melville Bissell mortgaged his entire personal fortune, including a team of prized harness horses, to rebuild and meet orders. The rushed production resulted in defective sweepers which Bissell recalled at an astronomical loss of $35,000. But the revolution in American housecleaning was in full force, women were happily “Bisselling,” as carpet sweeping came to be known, and the firm withstood these reversals.

In 1889 Melville Bissell contracted pneumonia and died at the age of 45.
Anna Bissell assumed the presidency, becoming one of America’s first female corporate executives. She had been deeply involved with the company from the start and now she aggressively set out to make Bissell an international phenomenon, not just an American institution. As the Bissell carpet sweeper colonized the world it even received a product endorsement from Queen Victoria and the Bissell rolled across the rugs in Buckingham Palace.

Anna Bissell guided the company into the 1920s, leading the fight against the insurgency of the new electric vacuum cleaners. No longer was the mechanical sweeper the only convenience in the closet. But the Bissell has survived, dodging obsolescence as a quick-cleaning adjunct to its more powerful neighbor for use on small messes.

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