America’s First Female CEO

To my forebears ~ my homage;
To my contemporaries ~ my greetings;
To my descendants ~ my hopes!”

Anna Bissell McCay (daughter of the subject)
“Recollections of Anna Bissell McCay”

It was Wednesday, November 29, 1865 in old De Pere¹, when Anna Sutherland and Melville Reuben Bissell were married.

Melville and Anna (Sutherland) Bissell in 1869
Photo Credits : “Recollections of Anna Bissell McCay”

Lydia Ann Sutherland, who went by “Anna”, grew up and was educated in De Pere. Anna and her family had moved from Nova Scotia, her birthplace, to De Pere in 1850 when she was only 4 years old. Her father, William Sutherland was an old sailor who often recounted his world travels to his children (and later his grandchildren). He would tell of the harbors of Australia, the tree ferns of New Zealand, and the times he sailed around Cape Horn; including, three shipwrecks where he was among a handful of survivors. At the time, De Pere was known as the best agricultural district in America, and as such, attracted many of the best settlers from England and France² (including the Sutherlands). After receiving all the education available to her, Anna became a teacher at the young age of sixteen, teaching out of an ox cart. She met Melville, her future husband, while he was visiting De Pere² and they wedded just three days shy of her 19th birthday.

According to his daughter, “He [Melville Reuben Bissell] was strong in purpose, though not in health, and although his family, once wealthy were now comparatively poor, he was setting forth undaunted to seek his own fortune.”²

In a letter, Melville’s sister Mary described Melville and Anna’s marriage :

Anna and Melville Bissell
Photo Credits : “Recollections of Anna Bissell McCay”

Melville and Anna always presented a picture in my mind of ideal lovers; their devotion, their unselfish thoughtfulness of one another’s feelings and interests, their tender expression of the almost ‘Divine love’ given to two tender hearts, makes me believe in the beautiful reality of the joys of wedded bliss, that the practical life has great possibilities of presenting a heavenly side to it, to those who are willing to think of others more than themselves – truly such lives are a part of the loving, compassionate Omnipotent Father, who loveth with a love beyond understanding…”

excerpt from “Recollections of Anna Bissell McCay”
Bissell China Store 1876
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Melville and Anna first moved to the town of Kalamazoo, Michigan where they had their first of five children in 1868, and owned a grocery store with Melville’s father.

In 1869 they left for Grand Rapids, Michigan, and founded a china shop. As legend would have it, much of their merchandise was packed in crates with sawdust which accumulated on their carpets. The carpet sweepers of the time were not effective and did not get the rugs clean. This is before electricity and vacuums were yet to be invented. Melville, who always had an inventive mind, began to work on refining their existing carpet sweeper. Carpet sweepers of the day would create dust clouds but Melville’s design did not. The newer design also worked better with uneven surfaces.

Antique Bissell Universal Carpet Sweeper
(an early 1900’s example)

When customers of the Bissell china store noticed the device, they began to ask if they too could purchase the carpet sweeper. Melville first patented the Bissell carpet sweeper September 19, 1876, and production began on the second floor of the china store. Anna became the main salesperson for the carpet sweeper and aided with the early productions. She was fascinated with the sweeper, knowing how it would lighten the drudgery of housework.

Bissell Carpet Sweeper Advertisement

The Bissell Carpet Sweeper came into existence in 1876, the same year as the telephone. The new and distinguishing feature of the Bissell Sweeper, the so-called “broom action” was the basis for the first really successful sweeper. In 1878, manufacture of sweepers was begun, and for two years they were all made on the second floor of a building at 27 Canal Street. In 1880 the plant was moved to the Old Iron Clad Building, at the foot of Erie Street, and the business grew very rapidly. Two years later, in 1882, a new large brick factory was erected, but this building was destined to be short-lived. On the morning of March 12, 1884 (a bitterly cold and windy day), fire broke out. The fireman first attempted to use the private water works of Bissell Company, but the hose was too short. The fire spread with lightning-like rapidity throughout the building and to a sawmill next door; thence to several adjoining factories, and all were completely destroyed. The loss to the Bissell Company was about sixty thousand dollars, and ninety men were out of employment. That very day, however, Melville R. Bissell declared that though his personal loss amounted to fifty thousand dollars, nevertheless he had ‘good health, Western grit, and Christian fortitude’ and he could make good. Father [Melville] bluffed the bankers into lending him a large sum of money to rebuild, while Mother [Anna] went to the merchants offering to return some expensive merchandise just purchased. They said, ‘No, Mrs. Bissell, just keep it. We know you will pay for it when you can’. It did help Father’s standing wonderfully. She was a true helpmate, if there ever was one. One year later the Bissell Company commemorated the anniversary of the fire with a feast for all employees, served in a new, four-story brick building. By the time of the second anniversary there were one hundred and sixty-five employees. In 1890 a group of Pan-Americans visited the factory, and an outgrowth of this visit was the first foreign shipment of sweepers, to Columbia, ‘packed to stand shipment over the mountains on mule back’. Labor relations at Bissell’s have always been happy, with one exception when the men struck for an eight-hour day as against ten. There was no violence and it was soon over, our first and only strike. Father [Melville] was always liberal with his men, and paid good wages and treated them well. He was one of the first employers to establish a co-operative insurance plan for them, over fifty years ago [pre-1888].”

Anna Bissell McCay (daughter of the subject) in 1938
“Recollections of Anna Bissell McCay”

If you would like a full history of the Bissell Company click here.

On March 5, 1889, Melville, at the age of 45, was stricken with pneumonia and died 4 days later. Anna’s daughter recalled, “The death of my father was the crowning tragedy of Mother’s life”¹. At the very time her heart was breaking, Anna, a newly widowed single mother of five, stepped behind Melville’s empty desk and into the presidency of Bissell; making her America’s first female CEO.

It was said that Anna “studied business the way other women of her time studied French.” Her results seem to confirm this. Under Anna’s leadership, Bissell became known internationally. Her big break was when news broke that Queen Victoria insisted that Buckingham palace be “Bisselled” once per week. News of the Queen’s special request was instrumental in expanding Bissell into England and Europe. After all, if it’s good enough for the Queen it’s good enough for us. Anna provided worker’s compensation and pensions to her employees (when it was still uncommon) and was described as “caring” in her role as president. She served as president and CEO until 1919, when her son, Melville Jr. assumed the position. She remained chair of the board until 1934.

Today, Bissell Company ranks as the 6th oldest manufacturer in the United States still held in private hands⁴. Anna’s great-grandson, Mark Bissell, currently serves as the company’s President.

In her later years, Anna Bissell became more and more involved in philanthropy. She served on hospital boards and with the Red Cross. Anna was a charter member in the Ladies Literary Club and a life member of the Women’s City Club.
She was even the first woman trustee of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Her primary concern, however, was the children of the area. She founded Bissell House, a training program for youth and immigrant women, and also was a board member of The Children’s Home Society. A group that provided housing to the nameless and homeless children of Grand Rapids.²

Statue sculpted by Ann Hirsch
Grand Rapids, Michigan

On November 8, 1934, Anna Bissell died at the age of 87. She had lived 45 years after the death of her husband. Surrounded by her family, her last words were, “I am glad”, as she smiled at her sons.²

Although Anna left De Pere, many of her family lived out the rest of their lives here. Her father, mother, and step-mother are all buried in Greenwood Cemetery. As well as Melville, a step-brother, named for her husband.

In recent years, Anna’s place in history has been recognized. She was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1989. In 2016, a 7 foot tall bronze sculpture of her was placed in downtown Grand Rapids. Unveiled on the 140th anniversary of the company, the statue stands on the same property as the original Bissell factory.

Anna Bissell
Photo Credits : Bissell.com

1 Recollections of Anna Bissell McCay
2 A Tribute
3
Patent 9,783
4 mlive.com

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