Alfred C. Fuller, who had a difficult time staying employed, started making brushes in his sister's basement and selling them door-to-door. In a short time, his brush business became extremely successful. Fuller, essentially, reinvented the brush. His brushes were high quality and designed to fit the specific needs of his customers. He developed an independent workforce who followed his pattern of door-to-door selling. Fuller demanded ethical behavior from his workers and was a role model to other manufacturers for his management techniques.
Alfred Carl Fuller, nicknamed Uppie, was born on January 13, 1885, in Nova Scotia, Canada. Some of his ancestors were among the passengers who came to America on the Mayflower. He was the 11th of 12 children born to Leander Joseph Fuller and Phoebe Jane Collins Fuller, and was raised on a farm in Nova Scotia. He, along with his family, was an active member in the Methodist Church. Going to church was absolutely mandatory and Fuller credits his early church experience for instilling his positive outlook on life. Rather than talk about how sin or crime does not pay, he heard about the virtue of modesty, and the rewards of living a clean and righteous life.
Fuller was also instilled with a good work ethic early on in his life. His mother was a thrifty homemaker and his father distrusted what he called, "city slickers," or those he thought tried to get by in life without having to work. Fuller's father would often look at his hands and say "These are your fortune, boy. Be suspicious of anyone who shows you how to make a living without using them." At a young age, Fuller earned money by picking berries and being paid by the quart. In his autobiography, A Foot in the Door, Fuller remarks that "I think that my later organization of Fuller Brush Men as independent dealers who are business men in their own communities, draw no salary from the company, and earn only the fruits of their won sales, was germinated in a Nova Scotia strawberry patch."
Fuller went to grammar school, and afterwards had no formal training or schooling. In Nova Scotia, children were expected to be self-supporting by the age of 18. In 1903, Fuller left home for Somerville, Massachusetts, where five of his siblings had already settled. Fuller worked, unsuccessfully, at a variety of jobs before he started to sell brushes door to door for William Staples. In 1906, he started his own brush company and moved to Hartford, Connecticut. In 1908, he married Evelyn Ells, who helped Fuller keep his new business thriving. The couple had two children, Howard and Avard, who grew up to become presidents of the Fuller Brush Company. Fuller and his wife, Evelyn, divorced in 1930. Fuller was remarried in 1932 to Mary Primrose Pelton; that marriage lasted for the rest of his life. During his first few years in Hartford, Fuller became interested and involved in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. He credits much of his success in dealing with people from the teachings of Eddy. Fuller believed in altruism and his business was based on the principles of charity, help, and community. He was aware of the tremendous responsibility he had and felt that each management decision affected every person in the organization. For that reason, it was important for the business to rely on the guidance of a higher power. "The organization has been shaped and is now permeated with a spirit which, whether consciously or unconsciously, is founded on the Scriptures, and, I believe, is directly motivated by metaphysical influences," Fuller once said. Fuller became a well respected man in the business world. He received many awards and was asked to be on the boards of several organizations. He died in Hartford, Connecticut on December 4, 1973.
After Fuller moved to Somerville, Massachusetts, he worked as a gardener, a delivery boy, and in a trolley car barn, but was fired from all these positions. Fuller's brother, Dwight, had been in the brush business with William Staples who gave Fuller his first job selling brushes door to door. Fuller enjoyed the work and was successful. He became extremely interested in "the brush" and studied its history. He learned that in 1830, the first patent for a brush was issued and the mass production of brushes began. There had only been few improvements made in the manufacturing of brushes up to this time. And those that were made, were manufactured to be obsolete so, Fuller's creations and innovations were a success waiting to happen.
As Fuller went door to door selling brushes, he learned cleaning tips from his customers and listened to their suggestions for making brushes for specific uses. He noted which brushes sold well and which ones did not sell well. Fuller took this information to his employers, who turned a deaf ear. On New Year's Day, 1906, Fuller set up a workshop in his sister's basement and began to make his own brushes. It was the start of the Somerville Brush Company. Fuller sought to improve the brushes and to make new shapes and sizes, and they were a success. Staples and his partner, Fred Kelly, were upset by Fuller's departure and subsequent success, and out of respect for his former employers, Fuller moved his shop to Hartford, Connecticut in April, 1906. Because Hartford was the capital city he renamed his company the Capitol Brush Company. His brushes were a success in Hartford and soon orders became backlogged. Eventually Fuller moved to a larger shop, bought machinery to produce the brushes, and hired someone to help him make and sell them.
In 1908, Fuller married Evelyn Ells. Evelyn was very interested in the business and was instrumental in maintaining the success of the Capitol Brush Company. She borrowed his samples, and went door to door herself, consistently outselling him. She often accompanied him while he made business calls and insisted on being paid for her time. Even though Fuller recognized Evelyn's competence and flair for selling his brushes, he never hired women because "in those days, it just wasn't done." In 1909, Fuller ran his first want ad for salesmen. The ad appeared in a national journal and the response was tremendous. His business practices however were haphazard, however, and he was not prepared to respond to all the inquiries or supply the potential salesmen with supplies without hiring more people to help. He credits Ruby Perkins, his first secretary, Phil Colturi, and George Marsh with helping him during the company's expansion. Later, Fuller used the talents of Wallace E. Campbell and the inventor Henry Cave. One man who was extremely helpful in developing a successful workforce was Frank Beveridge who worked with Fuller from 1912 to 1929, when he left to start the Stanley Home Products Company which also sold door to door. In 1913, the Capitol Brush Company became the Fuller Brush Company.
Selling door to door is a hard way to make a living. The salesmen were often linked to peddlers and frauds. Fuller always demanded that his salesmen dress nicely and behave in a courteous fashion. In 1918, he made the Handy Brush which was given out as a free gift to households where Fuller Brush men called. After World War I, sales gradually declined to the point where the company was in real trouble. Fuller, along with his financial advisor, Frank Adams, toured all of their divisions in the United States and Canada. They found disorganization and mayhem. Adams overhauled the entire company and saved it from collapse. The Fuller Brush Company survived the Depression years and afterward enjoyed a tremendous growth in sales. During World War II, the company prospered even further, as the demand for brushes was extraordinary. Also during this time, new synthetic materials were available to make the brushes. Fuller introduced new products including a line of cosmetics that were sold by a new workforce—the Fullerettes.
Fuller products were so great in number that the company began publishing a catalog of available items. Fuller's sons also became involved in the business. In 1943, the company signed its first formal contract with a union and afterwards, efficiency and scientific management replaced Alfred's paternalistic way of management. His son, Howard, was the driving force behind the company's success after World War II and became president in 1943, when his father became chairman of the board. After Howard's death in 1959, Avard became president of the company. Alfred Fuller retired in 1968.
Chronology: Alfred Fuller
1905: First job selling brushes door to door.
1906: Established Somerville Brush Company.
1906: Moved to Hartford, Connecticut and renamed company Capitol Brush Company.
1908: Married Evelyn Ells.
1913: Company became the Fuller Brush Company.
1918: Introduced the Handy Brush, a free gift to customers.
1921: Hired Frank Adams to save the company.
1943: Fuller signed first union contract.
1945: Retired as president of Fuller Brush Company.
Social and Economic Impact
The Fuller Brush Company is one example of the types of businesses that developed after the turn of the century. Those that started with a small sum of money, innovation, invention, and hard work, and that became extremely successful. It is expected that the company will still be a mainstay in the American marketplace into the 21st century. By the 1990s, Fuller products could be purchased over the Internet. The Fuller Brush Company was one of the first door to door sales companies and its management theories have greatly influenced many other door to door companies such as Stanley Home Products, Tupperware, Avon, and Amway. Alfred Fuller was looked to as a leader in the sales industry for his fair practices, beneficent treatment of employees, and a nononsense way of doing business.
There have been numerous jokes and cartoons featuring the Fuller Brush Man in magazines and newspapers. In 1948, the movie The Fuller Brush Man, starring Red Skelton was released and in 1950, the sequel, The Fuller Brush Girl, starring Lucille Ball was released. All were a light hearted tribute to a company and a product that, as early as the 1920s, had become a common household product.
Sources of Information
Current Biography Yearbook. New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1974.
Fuller, Alfred C. A Foot In The Door. New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1960.
Ingram, John N. Biographical Dictionary of American Business Leaders. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.
VanDoren, Charles. Webster's American Biographies. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1979.