Exhibitor Archive: Claude Hopkins, Bissell Carpet Sweepers, and the 1893 Chicago Exhibition

Founded in 1876, Bissell is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious homecare companies. But it was American advertising pioneer, Claude Hopkins, and the Chicago World’s Fair, that helped secure Bissell’s place in American industry.

You may know Bissell for their quality vacuums or their pet friendly SpotBot cleaners. Or, better still, perhaps you know the company is famous for having America’s first woman CEO, Anna Bissell.  

But what interests me is how Bissell became the launching pad for modern American advertising. Claude Hopkins recounts the story of his working for Bissell in his autobiography, My Life in Advertising.  

Claude Hopkins and Bissell Carpet Sweepers early beginnings 

Hopkins started at Bissell in the early 1890s as an assistant bookkeeper earning $40 a month. However, due to his incredible work ethic, within 8 months he became head bookkeeper, raising his salary to $75.  

Unfortunately, he hit the ceiling with this position. The reason, Hopkins says, is because “A bookkeeper is an expense. In every business expenses are kept down.” He then decided after seeing, “the difference between the profit-earning and the expense side of business, I resolved to graduate from the debit class,” (Hopkins, 40).  

His opportunity came when he butted heads with the then Dean of Advertising, John E. Powers. Hopkins writes that advertising at that time was in its infancy. Powers believed matter (physical qualities and capabilities of the product) should be put first instead of manner (benefits and aesthetics of product).

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Hopkins explains the problem of Powers’ simplistic approach:  

“But he knew nothing about carpet sweepers. Powers had given no study to our trade situation. He knew none of our problems. He never gave one moment to studying a woman’s possible wish for a carpet sweeper,” (Hopkins, 44). 

Hopkins knew carpet sweepers were sold almost exclusively to women. And he wanted to offer something that they would appreciate. 

An irresistible offer: bird’s-eye maple and walnut 

The carpet sweeping industry was still new at the time. In the 1870s-1880s, it was a very niche business. No one at Bissell believed Hopkins’ idea of offering carpet sweepers in a variety of different woods and making that the central offer in a campaign.  

Instead of making the product about broom action, patent dumping devices, cyco bearings, etc., Hopkins made Bissell carpet sweepers about design. In other words, he made them something desirable. So, he came up with the idea of using woodcraft to add to their perceived value.

After Hopkins fought for approval on his project, he sent letters to dealers telling how today’s sweepers are offered in “twelve of the finest woods in the world.” And then, to create a sense of scarcity, he claimed Bissell will never make this line of special sweepers again. If dealers wanted to stock their stores with them, then they had to sign the agreement in the letter.  

By talking about the things that his audience cared about (aesthetics, fashion, etc.), Hopkins was able to sell 250,000 sweepers in 3 weeks—a record breaking amount for Bissell.  

Hopkins reminisces on his first success in advertising this way:  

“It was based on pleasing people, like everything else I have done. It sold, not only to dealers, but to users and it multiplied the se of carpet sweepers. And it gave Bissell sweepers the practical monopoly which they maintain to this day,” (Hopkins, 47).  

Things get bigger at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893 

After his tremendous success, Hopkins left bookkeeping to sell. His goal was to create 3 selling schemes a year.  

The biggest one included the World’s Fair in Chicago. Hopkins sought out different finishes and wood to create new editions of carpet sweepers. But he out did himself with gold-plated sweepers. 

They were so elegant, Bissell decided to put them on exhibit at the World’s Fair. More than 150,000 people passed through the fair each day for its entire six month run.  

After the historic Fair ended, Hopkins sent another to dealers. This time the offer was to supply 3 gold-plated sweepers for every dozen sold on condition they would be displayed in the shop windows.  

As a result, Hopkins extended the visibility of Bissell’s exhibit at the fair for a much longer period.  Eventually, the success of this campaign led Hopkins to look for other work. He could no longer compete with himself in the carpet sweepers industry!

Conclusion: unique offers and follow-ups 

There are several lessons exhibitors can take away from the Claude Hopkins and Bissell Carpet Sweepers story. Start with knowing your audience, crafting an offer that will appeal to them, and follow up with them after a show.  

The Trade Group  is a full-service trade show and event marketing company. We will work with you to create an exhibit that brings in leads and helps you achieve your business goals. Contact us here or give us a call at 972-734-8585. 

Photo credit: Nichols, H. D., 1859-1939 (artist); L. Prang & Co. (publisher), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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