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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
Mutt and Jeff, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck have all been depicted as Fuller salesmen. Fuller Brushes figured also in the domestic adventures of that most famous of comic-strip married couples, Blondie and Dagwood; and the Big Bad Wolf in Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs concealed his sinister purposes under the guise of being a Fuller canvasser. Fuller gags and anecdotes served the Fuller Brush Company’s purposes, much as affectionate jokes about the Tin Lizzie reflected the friendly rapport between the public and the Model T Ford.
The lady of the house often had her order ready, and of course the brush man was invited in.
The Fuller Company understood early the importance of motivation. Much emphasis was placed on semiformal dances, which brought wives into the Fuller circle. There were service pins and awards, salutes to old-timers, recognition of anniversaries, marriages, and births, and once a year the headquarters employees honored “Dad” Fuller with a gala chicken and spaghetti dinner.
“We do not seem to have gone in much for genius,” Dad Fuller once remarked. Everybody at the Fuller Brush Company was just average human material, according to its head, including himself. But Fuller managed to impart a sense of evangelistic “calling” to commercial objectives with stunning success.
There were inevitably a good many Fuller tales of the farmer’s daughter-traveling salesman variety. There may have been some truth to them, but probably not very much.The brush man had little time for dalliance. Fuller told one story out of his own experience. He was putting on a “dem” for a red-haired woman. As he delivered his pitch, he became aware of the fact that she was more interested in him than in his samples.
”‘Do not lead me into temptation,’ she said coyly.
“I replied, ‘Madam, I am not leading you into temptation, but delivering you from evil.’
She laughed and bought three brushes.”
Dropouts always exceeded by a wide margin the cadre of real pros in the brush game. Some couldn’t maintain the psychological “high” necessary in cold-canvass work; others lacked the necessary self-discipline to face rebuffs, but company-sponsored self-help publications helped maintain morale. Reading The Brush-Off , Fuller’s house magazine, a dealer could learn how ordinary fellows had advanced in the world, thanks to Fuller’s fine products and policies—like the enthusiast who pointed out the vast opportunity that lay ahead for Fullerizing Texas, a huge, virgin territory, practically floating on oil; the teacher of romance languages with a master’s degree from Columbia University, who got tired of living in penury and now, through his association with the Fuller Brush Company, no longer had to think twice before buying a good cigar.
After the brush company went national, legal problems developed with cities and towns that had passed ordinances directed against door-to-door selling. The purpose of these ordinances was to placate local merchants and to protect unwary citizens against charlatans who sold “flash” linoleum, lightning rods, or fake Irish lace. In a well-known case, the town of Green River, Wyoming, (pop. 3,187) passed a stiff regulation that in effect outlawed all door-to-door selling by requiring that the peddler be invited to enter the customer’s house. Strictly speaking, the Fuller representative was not an employee of the Fuller Brush Company, and the Fuller lawyers were always happy to point out to those who tried to invoke police and licensing powers against brush salesmen that the company was a national manufacturing concern engaged in interstate commerce. The man who rang the doorbell was not the unknown emissary of some “foreign” corporation but a local, independent businessman serving an exclusive territory, assuming the risks and problems of his own business, bringing to the customer specialized housewares that she could not buy from any sedentary retailer. The designation of its representatives as “dealers” also relieved the company of such obligations as Social Security taxes and unemployment and workmen’s compensation.