THE FIRST FULLER BRUSH MAN
Alf Fuller, a rawboned Nova Scotia boy, got fired from his first three jobs so he set up a fifteen-dollar machine in a basement, started cranking out brushes and, on the side, invented the foot-in-the-door salesman. But he’s never laughed at any of the Fuller-Brush-Man jokes which helped him sweep up millions
FORTY-SIX years ago a rawboned youth from a Nova Scotia farm who was seeking his fortune in Boston wrecked a streetcar, forgot to currycomb a rich widow’s horse, and left an important parcel at the wrong address.
After these misadventures had cost him his first three jobs he decided to be his own boss so nobody else could fire“ him. lie installed a fifteen-dollar machine in his married sister's basement, and became a manufacturer. 'This was the beginning of a success story, for his name was Alfred Carl Fuller. 11 is product was brushes.
Today, at sixty-six. Fuller sits at the top of the brush heap, benignly supervising the operations of his international organization. His ledgers, when he glances at them, reveal an exceedingly satisfactory annual turnover of thirty-eight million dollars’
worth of brushes, brooms, mops (wet and dry) and other prosaic household items.
And his best-known contribution to the North American scene, the Fuller Brush Man, is solidly established as the prototype of the brash and indomitable door-to-door salesman. The sixty-six hundred Fuller Brush Men in the United States and the twelve hundred in Canada ring six doorbells a second, eight hours a day, and if you live in an average community one of them will call at your home at least twice in the next twelve months.
With tenacious courage and smiles that, are invincible to corns, bunions, fallen arches and insults, they lug their twenty-one-pound sample cases through every city, town, village and hamlet between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Mexican border and the Arctic circle.
They approach imposing mansions and unpainted shacks with the same friendly persistence and the same have-a-free-brush technique. Many carry dog biscuits as a free gift offer for hostile mastiffs. They have been known to help housewives plant flowers, paint walls, bathe babies. They have extinguished fires and assisted the stork, and one of them saved an infant’s life by whacking it on the bottom until it disgorged the coin that was strangling it. Another chased a fox from a chicken coop.
In Pennsylvania a Fuller BrushMan sold mops to two traffic cops who stopped him for speeding. In Texas one was arrested for violating a bylaw. At the courthouse he paid a fine of two dollars and fifty cents, pointed out, that the floors were dirty, and convinced authorities that they should invest fifteen dollars in brooms, mops and scrubbing brushes.
But the gold medal for persuasiveness is claimed by the Fuller Brush Man who popped up at Hyde Park, New York, in the late 1930s and got. a thirteen-dollar order from President Franklin I). Roosevelt.
Fuller, who started it all, muffed an opportunity to duplicate the accomplishment of selling brushes to the chief executive of the U. S. A. He had to interview President Harry Truman on behalf of the Connecticut Manufacturers’ Association. As he emerged from the White House reporters buttonholed him to ask whether he had sold Truman any brushes.
“No, darn it.,” he smiled. “I forgot, my sample case.”
Fuller, referred to as “Dad” by a total of sixteen thousand people who produce and market his wares, has few of the attributes you would expect to find in the creator of the Fuller Brush Man. Most of us think of a supersalesman as a gay, devil-maycare, rock-ribbed extrovert who laughs, drinks and smokes too much, wears flashy clothes, splurges when he has money, and has an endless store of jokes, mostly on the smutty side.
The Bicycle Beats the Buick
In contrast with this image Dad Fuller is quiet, solemn, dignified, mild-mannered. He chuckles, but is never jackknifed by uncontrollable laughter. He looks guilty, like a youngster caught doing something he shouldn’t dc, if he slowly sips a single glass of beer or one small Scotch drowned in water. He doesn’t smoke, even his sport clothes are conservative in color and cut, and when he hears a joke it goes in one ear and out the other.
There are hundreds of gags about his salesmen but Fuller pays scant attention to them. Perhaps one of the reasons is because of his preoccupation with religion and metaphysics for a quartei of a century he has been a Christian Scientist and most of his reading is Christian Science literature.
Another reason is that the jokes strike him as. not being true to life. There is one, for instance, about a boy who answered a Fuller Brush Man’s knock. “Mom’s out,” he said, “and Pop can’t see you because he has a sore back.” The Fuller Brush Man: “Tell
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your father I don’t want to wrestle him. I just want to sell him a new mop.”
Fuller’s reaction to this is that the salesman might have tried to sell the lad s old man a shaving brush, but that if he wanted to sell a mop he would have waited until Mom was home, mops being bought by housewives, not their husbands. In short. Fuller regards the sale of brushes as a serious matter.
He admits that the gags have had a certain publicity value and have tended to diminish consumer resistance to the door-to-door huckster.
Six foot one, broad-shouldered, Fuller weighs two hundred and fifteen pounds. His nose and ears are generously proportioned, he has a close-cropped grey mustache, and his brown eyes are sharp but kindly under bushy black brows. His bald head and his face — definitely a pleasant face— are bronzed by the sun, for he is a chronic golfer who dislikes hats.
He speaks hesitantly, in a low voice, and when his breezy and articulate wife, Primrose, is with him it is she who keeps the conversation flowing. It is also “Prim” who dispenses (he liquid refreshments when the Fullers have guests.
fuller is an ardent champion of the simple way of life. It is characteristic of him that although the company’s two airplanes are always at his disposal, and lie has a Cadillac, a Packard and a Buick, his favorite vehicle is a bicycle.
I he fullers have a fourteen-room residence at Hartford. Conn., where Dad has his head office and his principal factory, but from spring to fall they stay at the Nova Scotia coastal town of Yarmouth with Prim’s mother, Mrs. Charles Pelton, who has a big wooden house next to the Central United Church Iabernacle and across the street from the Yarmouth Public Library.
Dad is rated as a multimillionaire but he mows Mrs. Pelton’s lawn himself. He is pleased when his wife or his mother-in-law (who is a judge’s widow) sends him to the butcher shop for a couple of pounds of Iamb chops or to the drugstore for a tube of toothpaste because this is an excuse for hopping on his trusty bike and wheeling through the crooked streets.
Sometimes he likes to revisit the old farmhouse where he was born, at tiny Welsford, a hundred and fifty miles from Yarmouth, in Nova Scotia’s apple-growing Annapolis Valley. He sleeps there in the same room in which he slept as a boy, on the same lumpy mattress, because he is a sentimentalist.
It was on the family farm that the world’s most famous huckster laid the foundation for his success—although he didn’t realize it then. There are Maritimers who can put haywire to more uses than you can count, from fixing wagons to catching fish, and Fuller’s brother Dwight was one of them. If he needed a gun cleaner ßwight would twist strips of rag between two strands of haywire, and if he wanted a brush he would substitute hog bristles for the rag. From Dwight, Alfred learned the rudiments of brushmaking.
By watching itinerant peddlers display their merchandise to his mother, and trying to fathom why some were quickly dismissed while others not only sold goods but were treated to tea and doughnuts, he learned the ABC of selling.
His rural upbringing also gave him strong muscles, a deep and abiding faith in God, and the old-fashioned virtues of thrift, industry and honesty.
Last June Hartford’s Trinity College awarded an honorary master of arts degree to Dad Fuller, but his formal education was all gained in the oneroom school at Welsford and ended in the seventh grade. Éis schoolmates say he had a tendency to gaze at the window rather than at the blackboard, and that he was too much of a daydreamer to distinguish himself as a scholar.
As the eleventh of twelve children of Mr. and Mrs. Leander Fuller, and the second youngest of eight sons, he knew his chances of inheriting his father’s farm were not worth worrying about. When he was eighteen he bundled up his belongings, donned his blue serge Sunday suit, and bought a one-way ticket on the steamboat that plied from Yarmouth to Boston. His brother Harvey was a motorman on the Boston Elevated Railway and Alfred applied for similar work. He managed to pass for twenty-one—the minimum age for B. E. L. employment —and was hired as a conductor. “It was a pretty good job for a country lad,” he says. “It paid twelve dollars a week and you had an opportunity to meet people.”
In spite of this it bored him after eighteen months and he aspired to be a motorman like Harvey. He decided to do a bit of unauthorized practicing, his idea being that if he taught himself to pilot a tram he could surprise his boss and win a promotion. Impulsively he climbed into a car and tried to move it out of the carbarns. He lost control and it raced through the yards, jumped the track, and was badly damaged. So Fuller was fired.
Jobs were scarce in those times, especially if your former employer refused to recommend you. After Fuller had worn the soles of his shoes thin, searching in vain for a job that
was comparable to the one he had lost, he went to see a wealthy widow, a Mrs. Ball, who had advertised for a gardener" and handyman for her suburban estate. She engaged him at a niggardly wage and treated him like a slave. One of his many daily duties was the currycombing of her white horse. He happened to overlook this once and the Widow Ball returned from her afternoon canter in a towering rage. The horse was shedding, her blue velvet costume was matted with white hair and Fuller was fired again.
Driving a delivery wagon came next. “I was unsuited for it and had no particular interest in it,” he says. He probably left more parcels at wrong addresses than anybody else in Boston’s history. Among them was a very important parcel for a very important person—and Fuller rejoined the unemployed.
He Borrowed a Basement
While all this had been happening his brother Dwight—the one who made brushes back on the farm—had arrived in Boston and opened a small brushmaking shop. He had subsequently developed tuberculosis, sold out, and gone to the west for the sake of his health. Alfred knew Dwight’s successor and in 1905 entered a deal by which he was to buy brushes from him and attempt to sell them at a profit.
The tall bashful awkward youth from Nova Scotia, who had thus far failed at whatever he had tried, soon discovered he had a flair for selling. The first time he ventured forth with his sample case he made a sale on his second call. The same day he sold a brush without knowing what it was for. “I knew it was a radiator brush,” he relates, “but I didn’t know what a radiator was because I hadn’t lived in
a steam-heated house. I just said, ‘Now this is our radiator brush.’ The woman grabbed it and started brushing between the flanges of a radiator. In that way I found out the purpose of the brush.”
He earned more money selling brushes than he had ever earned before. Within a year he had saved three hundred and seventy-five dollars. He invested fifteen dollars of this in a hand-operated wire-twisting device and sixty-five dollars in wire, bristles and wooden handles, and went into the manufacturing as well as the retailing end of the brush business. His sister, Mrs. Walter Gleason, let him use her basement as a workshop.
Dad Fuller cranked out bath, clothes, hand and floor brushes by night and peddled them by day. When Bostonians seemed to have all the brushes they required at the moment he took a train to other places. One of them was Hartford, which impressed him as being a fine city. Late in 1906 he moved to Hartford, rented a shed for eleven dollars a month, and formed the Capitol Brush Company. Six years later he was surprised to learn that there was another and older Capital Brush Company; he renamed his own concern, which has since been the Fuller Brush Company.
Fuller kept meticulous account of his expenditures and still has records which show that his disbursements in March, 1907, included ten cents for stamps, twenty cents for a wrench, and sixty cents for express charges. At one stage he doubted whether his enterprise could
survive. That was in October, 1908, when his balance in the City Bank of Hartford dropped to $72.79.
He weathered the crisis and by July, 1909, his balance had increased to five hundred and twenty-three dollars and seventy-six cents. Meanwhile he had married and he had hired a six-dollara-week helper, Philip Coituri, who is now one of his executives.
With Coituri as an assistant he could turn out brushes faster than he could peddle them himself. He was soon recruiting salesmen in New York, New England and Pennsylvania. By 1910 he had twenty-five men in the field, six in his factory.
To expand he needed more salesmen and they were hard to find. He solved the problem by inserting a ten-dollar advertisement in Everybody’s, then a magazine of national circulation in the U. S. Within a week he had forty-five enquiries from men interested in selling brushes and within a month he had hundreds. There was so much mail to be answered that he engaged a secretary, Ruby Perkins. Like Coituri she’s still with him and is now assistanttreasurer of the company.
According to Dad Fuller it was the ten-dollar magazine ad that transformed his small organization into a j big one. In 1911 his sales force numbered one hundred. In 1913 he set up his company with a capitalization of fifty thousand dollars and elected himself president, treasurer and a director.
Dad, who is fond of remarking that he started his own business ‘‘because
I felt it would be nice to exert a measure of control over the duration of my employment,” now has twenty-seven hundred permanent employees. These are his factory workers and members of his office staff at Hartford, Albany, N.Y., and Hamilton, Ont., and salaried field managers scattered throughout this continent. His Hamilton plant, built in 1921 to make brushes for Canada, has three hundred and fifty on the payroll.
Besides his twenty-seven hundred employees, Dad has his seventy-eight hundred Fuller Brush Men. and fortyfive hundred Fuller Brush Girls. The Fuller Brush Men and the Fuller Brush Girls are not employees but independent dealers —“just as independent,” he says, “as the storekeeper on Main Street.”
They establish credit with the company, buy from it wholesale, and sell retail to the public. The average markup on their one hundred and thirty-five items of merchandise is thirty-three and one-third percent. The toughest part of their job is persuading housewives to let them come in and display their wares. Dad himself, early in his career, found that a free gift was an effective door opener. The gift the Fuller Brush Man presents to you if he’s inside your house but not unless he’s inside—is a vegetable brush. It is known among the initiated as the Handy and costs the salesman three cents.
In addition to originating the Handy, Dad Fuller originated the “big five” method of selling. This consists of: 1, naming the brush; 2, explaining how it is used; 3, telling what it’s made of; 4, stating the price; 5, telling why it is worth that much.
Married Women With Make-Up
Fuller, who realizes his salesmen are the backbone of his business, had a statistician dig up facts and prepare a report on them. This indicates that the composite Fuller Brush Man is forty, has a high-school education, has been married twelve and a half years, has two children, and drives a sevenyear-old car eight hundred miles a month. He has two thousand families in his territory and calls on twenty housewives a day, his best prospect being a young matron in a good residential neighborhood. He chalks up a sale for each three calls.
Cartoons to the contrary, he is seldom if ever greeted with outstretched arms by a beautiful siren who wears nothing but a transparent negligee and an enticing smile. Dogs are his worst occupational hazard and he is bitten once every four years; his outdoor recreations are fishing, gardening, hunting and going to baseball games; and his favorite entertainer is Red Skelton, who starred in the 1948 movie, The Fuller Brush Man. According to Dad Fuller, a Fuller Brush Man should earn eighty dollars a week if he has a fairto-middling personality and plenty of endurance. But he has to have the right kind of temperament or he can’t stick at it.
Much less is known about the Fuller Brush Girl but it seems improbable that she looks like Lucille Ball, who played the title role in the picture, The Fuller Brush Girl. Fuller Brush Girls are termed Fullerettes by the company and their operations are confined to the United States. Most of them are married women who earn enough to clothe and help feed the kids by peddling a popular-priced line of cosmetics manufactured by Daggett and Ramsdell and distributed by Fuller. The only brushes the Fullerettes handle are designed for applying cosmetics.
When Red Skelton and Lucille Ball were rehearsing their lines for their Fuller Brush movies, Dad Fuller coached them himself. He felt Skelton’s film would enhance the prestige of Fuller Brush Men and visited Hollywood, where he introduced Skelton to the “big-five” sales routine and talked the comedian into actually selling brushes from house to house for two days in preparation for his part. Neither picture, he says, was true to life and both overglamorized an occupation which is “not easy at best . . . and rather fatiguing.” Yet Dad liked them.
He was in Yarmouth when The Fuller Brush Man was shown and on the opening night Fuller handed out four hundred and fifty free brushes at the theatre and mounted the stage to deliver a lecture on a subject dear to his heart—namely, bristles. As he anticipated, the stunt boomed the sale of his products in southern Nova Scotia.
Polishing Apples, Scrubbing Skins
The Fuller Brush Company, mostly owned by Dad and other members of his family, not only makes the brushes marketed by Fuller Brush Men, but industrial brushes of all kinds - -such as brushes for machines that polish apples and machines that scrub sausage skins. It also produces ninety percent of the brushes for all vacuum cleaners manufactured in North America and special brushes (weapon cleaners) for the armed forces.
In recent years Dad Fuller has relied more and more on his two sons, Howard, thirty-eight and Avard, thirtyfour. Howard, educated at Harvard and Duke, is both an aviation enthusiast and a yachtsman. Unlike his father, he smokes, drinks more than one Scotch at a sitting and doesn’t go to church. Like his father, he takes his work seriously—so much so that he invented a complicated brushmaking machine—and is married to a girl from Nova Scotia, the former Dora Baker of Yarmouth. They have a son and two daughters. Tall bespectacled Howard is now president of the company, Dad having promoted himself to the less exacting post of chairman of the board.
Golf and Grills for Workers
Avard Fuller, now vice-president in charge of sales, is married, has a boy and a girl, and is keen about model railroads.
Howard, Avard and the other advisers of kindly Dad Fuller say it’s hard to prevent him from “giving his shirt away.” His Hartford plant, set among broad green lawns, could be mistaken for an ultramodern high school, and his labor relations are such that he has yet to have a strike. Employees at Hartford can buy a meat-and-potato meal for half what it would cost them at a restaurant run for profit. And, thanks to Dad, they have a twentytwo-acre park with a nine-hole golf course, baseball diamonds, outdoor grills and picnic tables, and a clubhouse complete with bar.
Alfred Fuller is so openly generous with what he has that the Hartford Times commented editorially: “In-
deed, when Hartford views the civic and philanthropic activities of Mr. Fuller, it might well conclude that it could scarcely do without him.” In his native Nova Scotia he is equally esteemed.
“Old AÍ,” declares a lifelong friend at the sleepy village of Welsford, “has certainly brushed his way from rags to riches—but he’s still the same nice guy.” ★