With three cats in the household, I do a lot of vacuuming. The light-colored sofas, living room rug, chair cushions, bedspreads and pillow covers all sport varying quantities of black fur depending on the cats’ chosen locations for their naps over the previous week. It doesn’t annoy me; it’s simply a by-product of living with cats.
I actually feel fortunate that I live during a time when a high-powered vacuum cleaners is a standard household appliance. What if I lived thousands of years ago when no doubt tree branches were used to clean the bones and other detritus from caves? Or even two hundred years ago when the vacuum’s predecessor, the carpet sweeper, was the appliance used to clean rugs?
No doubt those who lived then felt fortunate too. After all, they weren’t limited to brooms as generations before them were since brooms don’t work well on carpets. But carpet sweepers, though still requiring effort, were a vast improvement even if they carried their own set of problems.
The invention of the carpet sweeper that became the forerunner of the vacuum cleaner is generally credited to Melville R. Bissell. He was not first with the idea, however, A floor-sweeping machine had been patented by James Hume in England 1811, then improved by Lucius Bigelow (England) and Hiram Herrick (US) in 1858. Neither the original nor the improvement was great, however, since both tended to stir up more dust than they captured.
The patent for the Bissell machine (182,346) was issued on September 1876. It consisted of a metal box equipped with rotating brushes that was pushed by a long handle; dust and dirt were deposited inside the sweeper housing. However “labor saving” it appeared to be it did not, unlike the more vigorous hand methods, remove debris from anywhere other than the uppermost regions of the carpet or rug nap.
Prior to its introduction, the more common (and more effective) way was by broom and dust pan in between the annual or bi-annual “spring cleaning” method of hauling all floor coverings outside and beating them with a rug beater, a device that looked similar to an oversized fly swatter.
Melville and Anna Bissell owned a small crockery shop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Their merchandise arrived at their store packed in sawdust, and Anna’s growing frustration with the embedded sawdust in the carpet—the particles were tenacious clingers—was such that she talked to her mechanically-inclined husband about the problem. They purchased a carpet sweeper but weren’t happy with it, so he ended up designing and constructing one that was lighter, worked on uneven surfaces, and picked up dirt without creating clouds of dust, unique features among the carpet sweepers of the time.
Word went around and soon the Bissell’s were selling them door-to-door for $1.50 each. They’d load up their buggy in the morning and then go from town to town, each taking one side of a street. She was a starring success. On a trip to Philadelphia, she personally persuaded John Wanamaker to stock the Bissell sweeper in his stores. And it was she who organized the details of making, assembling, and delivering orders for the sweepers as well.
At the time construction of the sweepers consisted of having a few employees making and assembling the brushes in a room above the their store. This continued until their built their first manufacturing plant in 1883, a five-story factory. When fire struck this plant in 1884 she was the one who sought the loans from local banks to keep the business going. All it took her was a handshake and their good name. Production began again within twenty days of the fire. Throughout it all, the focus was on quality, and the Bissell’s were well on their way to dominating the growing market for the sweepers when tragedy struck: Melville, only forty-five years old, died on pneumonia in 1889.
Anna Sutherland had been born in Nova Scotia, the daughter of a sea captain. At an early age her family moved to Michigan where she met and married Melville at age when she was nineteen. Once her husband died, she became, first, president (1889-1919) and then CEO (1919-1934) of the Bissell Company. Smart and knowledgeable, she established new guidelines on trademarks and patents and moved the company’s products into the international market. By 1899, she had created the largest corporation of its kind in the world. She also introduced progressive labor policies including workers’ compensation and pension plans long before most other companies had them. Such policies engendered an unusual loyalty in her employees. But she understood the growing complexities of industrialism and knew every facet of the Bissell production. Of her it was said that she “studied business the way other women of her time studied French.”
Her progressive views also continued outside work. She began in the early grieving days of her widowhood by seeking out others “more unhappy than I am,” which led to her involvement in multiple endeavors. She was a charter member of the Ladies Literary Club, a life member of the Women’s City Club, an active member of Zonta, served on the board of the Clark Memorial House, was actively involved in Bissell House (a recreation and training program for youth and migrant women), and was for many years the sole woman member of the National Hardware Men’s Association. Upon her death in 1934, she was acclaimed as a “successful business woman in an era where business was almost wholly a masculine field.” Melville’s death was undoubtedly a personal tragedy but it was a professional opening that led to the company’s astonishing long-term success. When she finally passed the reins of the firm onto her son, Melville Bissell, Jr., a new challenge awaited—the vacuum cleaner. Still, even with that carpet sweepers sell. They provide a quick, and quiet, pick up in homes, and restaurants continue to use them. And Bissell still has the market on them.
Of course as technology and lifestyles change, the still-private company—known as Bissell, Inc. and Bissell Homecare—remains a major player. It has expanded beyond the carpet sweeper into vacuum cleaners, shampooers, small cleaners, and machines for deep cleaning in the home. But its products are still made to create “more leisure for pleasanter things.” Like reading.
Bookmark specifications: Bissell’s Book Mark
Almost since her childhood days of Mother Goose, Lauren has been giving her opinion on books to anyone who will listen. That “talent” eventually took her out of magazine writing and into book reviewing in 2000 for an online review site where she cut her teeth (as well as a few authors). Stints as book editor for her local newspaper and contributing editor to Booklist and Bookmarks magazines has reinforced her belief that she has interesting things to say about books. Lauren shares her home with several significant others including three cats, nearly 1,300 bookmarks and approximately the same number of books that, whether previously read or not, constitute her to-be-read stack. She is a member of the National Books Critics Circle (NBCC) as well as a longtime book design judge for Publishers Marketing Association’s Benjamin Franklin Awards. Contact Lauren.