- 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
In the Green River case, the local police arrested a Fuller Brush Man, and he was fined. The company brought suit under the “due process” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and won a verdict in the lower court but lost at the appellate level. John W. Davis, the distinguished corporation lawyer and onetime Democratic presidential nominee, took the case to the Supreme Court. But the Court declined to review, so the ordinance stood sustained. How, then, was a Fuller Brush Man going to get invited to enter a house? With typical Fuller resourcefulness, the peddler was instructed simply to slip a sales brochure under the door promising that he would be back soon with a gift. This worked so well that it was made standard practice throughout the country. And in 1956, when the Fuller line was expanded to include aerosols, detergents, vitamins, cosmetics, and chemicals, more items than any man could possibly demonstrate, the brochure became a catalog, called somewhat extravagantly Fuller Brush Magazine , containing editorial reading matter surrounded by Fuller advertisements. The lady of the house often had her order picked out before the brush man arrived, and of course he was invited in.
It seemed at times that the Fuller Brush Company would be destroyed by success as it tried to surmount the great imperatives of modern mass merchandising—production, real estate, and factory space, sales policies and cost accounting. Leaping sales figures tell the story: 1910, $30,000; 1916, $86,649; 1917, $250,000-plus; 1918, $700,000; 1919, $1,000,000; and on to $15,000,000 in 1923; and by 1946, $41,000,000 in brushes and mops alone.
World War II brought a temporary hiatus in the profits pattern, when raw materials as well as men were in short supply, and during the war Alfred C. Fuller retired, though he remained the revered chairman emeritus until his death on December 4, 1973. His retreat to honorary status was enthusiastically endorsed and assisted by his restless, aggressive elder son, Howard, who piloted airplanes and speedboats, and drove powerful, fast cars. A born salesman and executive, Howard often locked horns with his father over the need for a broad reappraisal of Fuller Brush Company policies and procedures. “We were close,” the father wrote in a curiously revealing passage, “but in an antagonistic way.”
In 1943 Howard became president, “picked up the leadership and ran with it,” as his father noted, bringing his brother, Avard, in to head the engineering department, strengthening the central management, and introducing innovative sales methods such as emphasizing short demonstrations and smaller sales but more of them.
The new methods worked. Under Howard Fuller’s leadership, gross sales reached $109,000,000 in 1960. But by that time the leader was gone. On a 1959 business trip, accompanied by his wife, Dora, Howard was hitting 120 miles per hour in Nevada when his Mercedes-Benz 300SL blew a tire. Both Fullers were killed.
Avard E. Fuller succeeded to the presidency to find a new threat in a changing world—“Avon calling.” Avon Products, Inc., a perfume and cosmetics company dating back to 1886, moved ahead spectacularly in the 1960s, keeping step with profound sociological changes. Avon advertised heavily and used independent contractors, most of them women who worked part-time. The strategy fitted the need for two incomes to support the family, and the massive entry of women into the country’s economic life. Between 1953 and 1967, Avon sales soared by more than 900 percent, while Fuller gained a stodgy 47 percent. Briefly, just after World War 11, Fuller had experimented with women dealers, called “Fullerettes.” The plan didn’t work. The salesmen were resentful, and Fuller returned to its traditional reliance upon professional salesmen, full time, men only.
“In the thirties, Fuller’s was the better strategy,” Forbes magazine noted, “but the times changed.” Fuller kept up its standards. But high employment and high wages lured good men into other fields. “We goofed,” Avard Fuller said in retrospect. “The handwriting was on the wall and we should have read it.” Avon had an army of one hundred thousand in the field, far more than Fuller. Belatedly, in 1965, Fuller Brush welcomed back the part-time saleswoman, but the shift required the reshaping of recruiting, an overhaul of the commission system and support activities, and higher costs. Much momentum—and money —was lost.
Nonetheless, Fuller Brush endured. Today, thousands of salespeople still fan out over their appointed territories. Seventy-five percent of them are women now, most of whom work part time to supplement the family income, and all of them—male and female—are known by the straightforward title of Fuller Brush representative. The company is today owned by the Sara Lee Corporation, which bought it in 1968; no member of the founding Fuller family is any longer involved in the operation.