The Fuller Brush Man

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Once upon a time, not too long ago, a doorbell would ring almost anywhere in America, a housewife would run to answer it, and there would stand a wellgroomed, smiling gentleman. “I’m your Fuller Brush Man,” he would say, stepping back deferentially. “And I have a gift for you.” It was the famous Handy Brush. “I’ll just step in a moment,” he would go on, scooping up his sample case and kicking off his rubbers (which were, by intention, bought a size too large so they would slip off easily). By some extrasensory perception, the Fuller representative would seem to know where the living room was, and within seconds his case would be open, the free brush splendidly in view, the demonstration, or “dem,” already under way.

The brushes looked like anyone else’s brushes, a twist of wire and a tuft of bristles. But there were important differences, as the salesman explained. He might ask for a sincere opinion: “What do you think of these bristles, madam?” The housewife probably knew little about bristles or brush technology, but her earnest visitor could show conclusively that Fuller brushes were fashioned in novel shapes and sizes, each designed to perform specific tasks. And, he would explain, he wasn’t selling things , but service, better ways to keep a house neat and avoid drudgery.

The talk never flagged, because a pause in door-to-door selling meant no sale. The Fuller Brush Man left two out of three of the homes in which he was allowed to make his full pitch with an order worth from three to seven dollars. He asked for no money and left no brushes. The following Saturday, when the husband’s paycheck was still largely intact, the Fuller representative reappeared to deliver the merchandise and pick up the cash.

Sometimes the customer had changed her mind. The brush peddler might look troubled but was never argumentative. “Which one did you decide you could get along without?” he would ask, scanning the order list. The woman had intended to cancel everything. But the way the salesman phrased it usually led her to let the order stand or agree to some substitution.

The Fuller art of opening doors was regarded by connoisseurs of cold-turkey peddling in somewhat the same way that balletomanes esteem a performance of the Bolshoi—as pure poetry. In the hands of a deft Fuller dealer, brushes became not homely commodities but specialized tools obtainable nowhere else. They were brought to the door by a man worthy of trust who would be back again in three to six months with new items to demonstrate once more the truth of the Fuller Brush Company’s slogan, “45 Brushes—69 Uses—Head to Foot—Cellar to Attic.”

If the customer didn’t always remember the name of the Fuller representative, it didn’t really matter. To her he was “Mr. Fuller.” And in fact, sometimes he was Mr. Fuller. Once a country lad off a hardscrabble farm in Nova Scotia, Alfred Carl Fuller applied mass-production manufacturing and dazzling sales techniques to a humble but necessary article and—without patent protection —built a business whose sales worldwide rose to more than $100 million a year. The company he started is eighty years old this year.

Fuller was born in the apple belt of the Annapolis valley, Nova Scotia, on January 13,1885. He got his formal education in a one-room schoolhouse, his vocational training on a family farm, and his religious instruction from a devout Methodist mother who had a Scriptural verse ready for life’s every moral crisis.

The Fuller house was always full. “There were twelve of us,” Alfred Fuller recalled, “rather too many for the farm.” He was number eleven, a gangling youth with no clear prospects, expected to fend for himself when he became eighteen years old. Several brothers and sisters had already shown one way to escape from the ox-team culture of the Annapolis valley into the modern world of the States. They took the “down” train from Berwick to Yarmouth, the night boat to Boston, and the Boston Elevated cars to Somerville. There Alfred’s siblings had settled and there, in January 1903, his sister Annie and her husband, Frank Adler, provided board and room for eighteen-year-old Alfred. His capital at the time was seventy-five dollars, and he had no job and no discernible skills.

In Somerville the Fullers had shown a modest degree of upward mobility. One brother, Robert, operated a small express business. One was on the police force. Another made and peddled household brushes in a small way before he contracted tuberculosis and died. Still another was a trolley conductor. Alfred, also, got a job as a trolley conductor but soon lost it. He tried being a gardener and groom but was fired again. Robert gave him a job driving an express wagon. That didn’t work out either.