The Fuller Brush Man for decades roved American cities and towns with a smile, a sample case and a good pair of shoes.
He sold brushes and brooms door to door, and he did it so skillfully that other salesmen knew not to follow him until he was well out of town.
Once in Pennsylvania, a Fuller Brush Man sold mops to two traffic police officers who stopped him for speeding. Another had to appear in a Texas courthouse for violating a bylaw. He paid a fine of $2.50, pointed to the dirty floors and sold $15 worth of brooms, mops and scrub brushes.
One Fuller Brush Man even talked his way into President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, N.Y., and sold him $13 worth of matched brushes.
In 1936, Billy Graham worked as a Fuller Brush man and learned that sincerity sells. He prayed for sales success before every call. It worked; he was the top Fuller Brush salesman in both Carolinas.
“I believed in the product,” he wrote. “Selling those little brushes became a cause to me. I felt that every family ought to have a Fuller Brush as a matter of principle.”
1st Fuller Brush Man
Alfred Carl Fuller, the first Fuller Brush man, was born in 1885 on a poor farm in Nova Scotia. The eleventh of 12 children, he had no hope of inheriting the farm. By 1903, several of his brothers and sisters had escaped what he called the “ox-team culture of the Annapolis valley.” They took the train from Berwick to Yarmouth, the night boat to Boston and the T to Somerville, Mass.
As a country bumpkin from Canada, Fuller had a hard time keeping a job–as a train conductor, a handyman and a wagon driver. Then in 1905 he found his calling as a salesman for the Somerville Brush and Mop Company. He would close his sale by helping the housewife with her cleaning chores.
“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,” he wrote.
Fuller saved $375 and set up a workbench in his sister’s basement with a hand-operated wire-twisting machine. By night he made brushes from wire, horsehair and hog bristles. By day he sold them door to door.
In 1906, Fuller moved to Hartford, Conn., a city with special meaning for him. His wire-twisting machine was made in Hartford and his family Bible back in Nova Scotia was printed there. Fuller also noted Hartford’s Victorian houses filled with bric-a-brac, fancy radiator grills and decorative woodwork, all collecting dust.
By 1908 he had earned, and saved, enough money to marry a young lady from Nova Scotia, Evelyn Ellis. She worked behind a glove counter at Jordan Marsh, and she could outsell him. They had two sons, Avard and Howard.
In 1909, Fuller put a $10 ad for salesmen in a national magazine. “Why not get out of the rut you’re in? Take advantage of the opportunity which The Fuller Brush Company now offers you!”
The little ad transformed the Fuller Company. By the end of the month, Fuller said, he had a national business with 260 salesmen. That year, the Fuller Brush Co. sold $1 million brushes, mops and combs
With pluck and perseverance, thousands of Fuller Brush Men would lift themselves from dead-end jobs to middle-class respectability.
They had signed a pledge to be courteous, kind, sincere and helpful.
When a housewife answered the door, the Fuller Brush Man greeted her politely. “I’m your Fuller Brush Man,” he would say. “And I have a gift for you.”
The average Fuller Brush salesman called on 2,000 to 6,000 families a year and rang 60 doorbells a day. Mrs. Housewife only got the free gift – the Handy Brush – if she let him in.
The Fuller Brush Man would then go into the living room “for a moment.” If it were raining, he’d step out of his rubbers, a size too large so he could get out of them quickly with no interruption to his sales patter.
Before the housewife could say no, he would demonstrate the free Handy Brush. Two out of three times, the Fuller Brush Man would finish his pitch and leave with an order of three to seven dollars.
Alfred Fuller, known as Dad to his employees, had come up with the idea of the free gift. He also developed the ‘big five’ method of selling.
- Name the brush
- Explain how it’s used
- Tell what it’s made of
- State the price
- Explain why it’s worth that much.
Dad Fuller once told a story about a housewife who, he realized, was more interested in him than in his brushes.
‘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.
Jokes about the Fuller Brush Man and Mrs. Housewife became standard at Rotary and Kiwanis dinners.
A mythical Fuller Brush man appeared in a Tijuana Bible, dirty comic books popular during the Great Depression.
The company fought the perception that the Fuller Brush Man preyed on lonely housewives. It advertised “every Fuller salesman is a gentleman.”
“After Mrs. Housekeeper had placed an order for Fuller Brushes, it used to be not unusual to find that the orders would not stick on delivery day,” the 1923 company newsletter reported. That was because Mr. Husband objected to her spending money on a man calling at the house while he was gone. Advertising in the Saturday Evening Post, the newsletter reported, solved that problem.
Maybe. But the Saturday Evening Post gave the Fuller Brush Man his name in 1921 when it coined the expression.
Fine and Dandy
In 1923, a Pittsburgh theater usher named Albert Teetsel joined the company. A crackerjack salesman, he soon won promotion to district manager. Teetsel motivated the sales force by forming “Fine and Dandy” clubs. Every salesman had to answer the question, “How are you?” with “Find and dandy, how are you.” The company sold $15 million in 1923, the year it opened its huge new factory in Hartford.
Fuller Brush thrived over the next few decades. It weathered World War II by making brushes for the war effort, 40 million of them. In 1946, Fuller Brush had $41 million in sales. By 1960, it hit $100 million, with an expanded repertoire of cleaning and skin care products.
But local merchants objected to competition from door-to-door salesmen, and cities and towns began passing ordinances forbidding the practice. In 1931, police in the tiny town of Green River, Wyo., arrested a Fuller Brush Man for violating such an ordinance. The company fought the case in court, arguing its salesmen were not employees, but independent businessmen who bought their products from the manufacturer. They worked solely on commission, and the company paid no unemployment insurance workers’ compensation or Social Security taxes.
Fuller Brush won the case, but lost on appeal. The Supreme Court declined to hear it. The company then had to get around the legal requirement that its salesmen be invited into a house. So it came up with a catalog, which the salesmen slipped under the door. He promised to return to fill the order. It worked like a charm.
Fuller Brush Man in Pop Culture
The Fuller Brush Man also appeared in comic strips like Blondie and in Disney cartoons, with Donald Duck going door-to-door selling brushes.
In 1948, Columbia Pictures made a movie called The Fuller Brush Man, starring Red Skelton and Janet Blair. It opened in Hartford, and it did well enough to inspire a sequel, The Fuller Brush Girl, starring Lucille Ball.
In real life, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale worked as a Fuller Brush Man, which may be where he learned the power of positive thinking. Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Reubens), Dennis Quaid, Vince DiMaggio and Dick Clark have, at one time or another, said they had worked as a Fuller Brush Man.
Then Avon Came Calling
In the early 1950s, the Avon Lady came hard on the heels of the Fuller Brush Man. Between 1953 and 1967, Avon sales rose 900 percent, Fuller only 47 percent. The company had tried Fullerettes in World War II, but it didn’t work too well.
By the 1960s, high wages and low unemployment made it hard to recruit men, and two-earner families meant fewer housewives at home. In 1965, Fuller Brush brought back the saleswoman. The food conglomerate Sara Lee bought the company in 1968 and moved manufacturing to Great Bend, Kans. By 1986 three-quarters of the sales force consisted of part-time saleswomen looking to ride “Mr. Fuller’s Opportunity Special.”
Finally, Wall Street got its talons into the Fuller Brush Company. After a series of acquisitions, the company declared bankruptcy in 2012. Six years later, Galaxy Brush bought the name, patents and trademarks of the Fuller Brush Company. Today you can buy Fuller products online.
“But there’s nothing like seeing a real Fuller Brush Man in action,” the company says on its website. “That’s why we launched a YouTube channel, where a modern-day Fuller Brush Man demonstrates the products for you.”
With thanks to Somerville: A Brief History by Dee Morris and Dora St. Martin, The Fuller Brush Man by Gerald Carson for American Heritage and THE FIRST FULLER BRUSH MAN by Ian Sclanders for Maclean’s.
Image: Fuller Brush Man poster By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20212147. This story was updated in 2021.