- Historic Sites
The Fuller Brush Man
Connoisseurs have long regarded him as the master of cold-turkey peddling. He’s been at it for eighty years.
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
But he liked brushes. Applying to the little brushmaking shop where his late brother, Dwight, had been salesman, Alfred was handed a case containing twenty-five assorted samples. His employer wished him luck. Heading for a middle-class section of Roxbury, young Fuller, still very much a “country bumpkin,” as he said, learned the exhilarating fact that he could sell brushes even though he spoke with an accent, saying oot and aboot instead of out and about . The crucial moment, young Fuller learned, was the demonstration. The sale was made when he showed the housewife what the brush could do for her.
“I washed babies with a back brush, swept stairs, cleaned radiators and milk bottles, dusted floors—anything that would prove the worth of what I had to sell,” Fuller said. In return, grateful customers gave him ideas for new and better brushes, which, he noted, could “be made in fifteen minutes out of a few cents’ worth of materials” and sold for fifty cents. Mulling it all over he calculated that he could sell from samples for future delivery, manufacturing only what he had already sold. No capital was needed. At twenty-one Alfred Carl Fuller decided on a career in brushes.
On New Year’s Day, 1906, Fuller knocked together a workbench in his sister Annie’s basement, mounted a small hand-operated wire-twisting machine and spools to hold various gauges of wire, opened his bundles of horsehair, fiber, and hog bristles, and went to work. With a fresh supply of homemade samples packed into a fiber suitcase, Fuller headed for Roxbury. “Mrs. Angeli,” he said on his first call, “I now have that special brush you asked for—the sweeper with protected ends that can’t damage woodwork. 1 made it in my shop just for you.” Fuller had found his métier. Despite his Canadian inflections, despite his lack of a “line” or perhaps because of it, Fuller made a clear profit of $42.15 his first week out.
How to get inside the house was Alfred Fuller’s contribution to the art of legal entry.
A few years later, Fuller moved to Hartford, Connecticut, a city with both spiritual and material attractions for him. Fuller’s first wire-twisting machine had been built at Hartford; the great Fuller family Bible that reposed on the center table in the Fuller parlor back home at Grand Pré had been printed in Hartford, which made it for the virtuous youth a heavenly city built upon a hill; and he had noticed on an earlier visit that the insurance capital had long avenues of big, old Victorian residences, filled with dust-catching grillwork, wood paneling, dadoes, moldings, stair banisters, steam radiators, and spacious but unsanitary kitchens—all in urgent need of the elemental tools of cleanliness. Prosperous but dusty Hartford was a brush man’s dream.
Fuller thumbed the Scriptures and concluded that something greater than himself had led him to Hartford: “Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken,” his Bible told him, “neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah. …”
Though Alfred Fuller was never called Hephzibah, he did become affectionately known as “Dad” throughout his company as it leaped forward, expanding year after year under Fuller’s exhilarating guidance, incorporating in 1913, always employing the latest automatic machinery, the newest sales ideas. Fuller was indeed a father figure to the thousands of salesmen whom he inspired with confidence in what an ordinary man could accomplish —working on straight commission. There was nothing new about brushes. Anybody could make them. And there was nothing new about peddlers ringing doorbells. But how to get inside the house: that was Alfred Fuller’s contribution to the art of legal entry. Fuller’s idea was that one man, ringing a certain number of doorbells each day, would, by a precise mathematical average, sell a certain number of brushes and other Fuller items to a certain number of housewives, provided he learned how to put on a demonstration properly and diligently worked the two to six thousand families composing his exclusive territory. In theory each family was able to absorb about $120 worth of brushes, waxes, polishes, and cleaners a year.
In 1908, with the handsome sum of two thousand dollars in the bank, Alfred Fuller had proposed marriage to Evelyn Ells, an eligible Nova Scotian girl he had spotted earlier behind the glove counter at Jordan Marsh Co., the Boston department store. They were married on April 10. There was no time for a honeymoon. Evelyn proved to be a substantial addition to the business as stabilizer, adviser, and star salesperson. But she had no friends in Hartford, and a husband who loved her mostly in absentia . Two sons were born to the marriage, Howard in 1913 and Avard in 1916. To the father, whose own existence merged completely into the life of the company, the outlines of an industrial dynasty were apparent. But under the pressure of developing the business, Alfred forgot the admonition that his mother had pointed out in the Book of Proverbs—to “rejoice in the wife of thy youth.” The Fullers were divorced in 1930.