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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
In 1932 Alfred Fuller married again, more happily. His bride was another Nova Scotian, Mary Primrose Pelton, daughter of a judge in Yarmouth. The second Mrs. Fuller widened her husband’s horizons, bringing new relaxations and pleasures, charitable interests in the fields of music and education, and a congenial companionship that lasted for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile the Fuller way of doing business developed as a beautifully clean, cash operation, extending no credit, requiring no infusions of outside capital. The Fuller Brush Man paid for his sample kit, advanced the money for his first order, even paid for the free Handy Brush he gave away. When he delivered the order, he collected the amount of the bill and sent the proceeds to Hartford, less his commission (50 percent in the early days, later scaled down as the company provided more training and supervision, branch warehousing, and other backup services). Recruiting good men was the hardest part, carried on in a rather haphazard fashion until 1909 when Fuller inserted an “Agents Wanted” classified advertisement in Everybody’s Magazine , a popular national periodical. The cost of the ad was ten dollars, and the mail poured in. Within a month, Fuller recalled, “We had two hundred and sixty dealers and a nationwide business. …”
Successful Fuller canvassers came from practically everywhere. One of the greatest in company annals was Albert E. Teetsel, a former factory foreman from Poughkeepsie, New York. Bursting with energy and team spirit, he had dark, curly hair and was built like a wrestler, with a broad, goldtoothed smile and a booming laugh. As district manager for metropolitan New York, he organized a Fine and Dandy Club, which earned him the title “Fine and Dandy Al.” The club motto, long before the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale produced his popular variant of it, was “Positive always.” (Incidentally, Peale, too, once lugged a Fuller sample case.)
Another big success was a man who drove a laundry wagon in Lowell, Massachusetts. Cheerful, aggressive, he took a chance on delivering brushes instead of shirts and sheets. In three years he was a district manager with a paycheck running into five figures. And there was a brakeman, and a meat cutter. One man signed on because he needed lots of fresh air. Others were former clerks, ministers, teachers, bricklayers, insurance agents, musicians.
The most commonly heard complaints were the long hours, the six miles a day each man was expected to walk, and the strange dogs they met along the way.
The Fuller technique with dogs deserves mention. It once drew a respectful inquiry for details from the United States Post Office Department in Washington. A Fuller Brush Man was taught never to run from a dog—that only encourages it. And he never kicked one, either, for if the pet’s mistress was peeking from behind the curtains, the peddler was as good as dead anyway. The trick was to be firm, and brisk, and to try to look like a friend of the family while keeping the sample case between your legs and the beast’s teeth. It also helped to be philosophical about it: every salesman expected to get bitten about once every four years.
Possibly no company in the directselling industry ever received more free advertising than the Fuller Brush Company. The adventures of its intrepid representatives somehow caught the public fancy. Celebrities were tracked down and sold their quota of brushes, and the fact did not go unheralded. Among them was the original John D. Rockefeller at his estate in Pocantico Hills in New York’s Westchester County. The old billionaire was good for forty-two dollars’ worth of Fuller’s goods, while not far away, at Hyde Park in Dutchess County, a brush salesman once persuaded the Secret Service and the household staff of the President of the United States to admit him and sold Franklin D. Roosevelt a thirteen-dollar set of matched brushes. When Alfred Fuller was summoned to the Truman White House to discuss pro-auction of brushes for cleaning guns during the Korean War, a cartoonist drew a picture of the Fuller Brush Man with one foot in the door of the White House. Actually, Fuller said afterward, the housekeeper at the White House had been a good customer for years. The Lyndon Johnsons, both before and after they occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, laid in supplies of Fuller merchandise regularly. A secretary paid for them—in cash, of course.
Much valuable publicity was generated by the entertainment industry. In 1948 the comedian Red Skelton starred in a motion picture released by Columbia Pictures called The Fuller Brush Man . Skelton rehearsed for the part by taking out a sample kit of brushes and making some calls. He sold to three out of the ten housewives he called on. The film opened in Hartford, Connecticut, home of the Fuller Brush Company, and was dedicated to “those unsung heroes with the flashing smiles and flat feet.”