Alfred Fuller

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Alfred Fuller

The line of brushes sold by Alfred Fuller (1885-1973) took him from rags to riches. He felt that products should be made to work correctly and to last a long time. This idea was new at the beginning of the twentieth century, when cleaning tools were poorly constructed and needed to be replaced often.

Alfred Carl Fuller was born on January 13, 1885, on a farm in the Canadian town of Grand Pre, Nova Scotia. His parents were Leander Joseph, a Mayflower descendant, and Phebe Jane (Collins) Fuller. Fuller was the eleventh of twelve children born to poor but hard working parents. He attended grammar school, but never went to high school and had no business experience. At the age of 18, in 1903, Fuller left Canada to seek his fortune in the U.S. He joined two brothers and two sisters in Somerville, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. Fuller lost three jobs-train conductor, handy man, and wagon driver-during his first two years of work. In 1905, he took a job as a brush and mop salesperson. During that year, Fuller learned a lot about brushes. He also managed to save $375 and used the money to start his own business.

Designed to Work, Crafted to Last

Fuller set up a workshop in the basement of his sister's house. He spent $80 on equipment and materials. On a bench between the furnace and the coal bin, Fuller constructed twisted wire brushes by using a small, hand cranked device. He made his brushes at night and sold them during the day. The 21-year-old was determined to create the best products of their kind in the world. Fuller felt that brushes should be constructed to last, an unusual idea at the time. Cleaning tools at the turn of the century were not well made and required frequent replacement. Fuller noted, "By the time I began to sell brushes in 1906, most of the cheaper brands on the market were of twisted-in wire. The fiber materials employed were as haphazard as the techniques of fabrication. For most processors, anything they could lay their hands on was good enough; they did not want their wares to endure too long, or there would be no repeat business. This philosophy has become known as calculated obsolescence. … " Fuller refused to accept this. He was determined to create products that were practical and long lasting. His simple philosophy was to design it to work, craft it to last, and guarantee it no matter what.

The brushes available at the turn of the century were very outdated and could not perform many of the tasks needed at that time. Fuller sold his first brush to a woman who used it to clean a radiator. Fuller noted "After that I studied a housewife's needs and we made a brush for every need." Fuller saw the need for brushes that would perform specific functions, such as cleaning silk hats, spittoons, Victorian furniture, and floors. Eventually the company produced over 700 types of brushes, including the "handy," a free vegetable brush that salespeople gave to each customer.

Secret to Selling

In 1908, Fuller married Evelyn W. Ells, with whom he had two sons. When Fuller's sales amounted to $50 a week, he moved his company to Hartford, Connecticut-a city he had visited on his sales trips. He rented space in a shed for $11 a month and hired a shop assistant. At first he called his company the Capitol Brush Company, but after he found out that someone else was already using that name, he renamed his business the Fuller Brush Company in 1910.

Customer education was a hallmark of Fuller's business. Because his products were so different from others, customers had to be shown how to use them. Salespeople had to know all about the product and the specific household problems they were made to solve. Fuller's salespeople were experts in home care, could determine the needs of their customers and were willing to demonstrate what each product could do. The secret to selling, according to Fuller, was to be unfailingly polite and helpful. As Fuller went door-to-door selling his wares, he would say to each potential customer, "Good morning, madam. If there is anything wrong in your house that a good brush could fix, perhaps I can help you." Fuller's salespeople gained a reputation for being persistent but polite. One salesman even changed a customer's tire.

By 1910, the Fuller Brush Company employed 25 salespeople and six factory workers and had reached $30,000 in sales. The salesmen covered New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. Wanting to expand his operation, Fuller placed a small advertisement in a magazine. In a few months, he had over 100 salesmen who sold Fuller brushes across the United States. In 1913, Fuller incorporated the business, becoming its president, treasurer, and a director. By 1918, his sales had reached $500,000.

In 1923, sales reached $15 million and there were thousands of "Fuller Brush Men," as they were named by the Saturday Evening Post. Fuller Brush Men were well known sights in neighborhoods. Comic strips such as Dagwood and Blondie, Mutt and Jeff, Mickey Mouse, and Donald Duck featured Fuller Brush Men. Walt Disney's film The Three Little Pigs, showed the big bad wolf approaching the pigs' house dressed as a Fuller Brush Man. The 1948 movie, The Fuller Brush Man, starring the famous comedian Red Skelton, poked fun at the occupation. By 1947, sales reached $30 million. The salesmen were independent contractors who bought their products from the company, paying wholesale prices. They sold them at retail prices and kept the difference, making about 30 percent profit. Each salesman covered a territory of about 2,000 homes. In the first 50 years of the company's existence, Fuller salespeople reached an estimated nine out of ten American homes, selling over $800 million worth of products.

In 1948, women salespeople, called "Fullerettes" were added to the sales force, to help market cleaning supplies and cosmetics. A Fullerette was featured in the 1950 film, The Fuller Brush Girl, starring Lucille Ball as scatterbrained saleswoman who attempted to sell cosmetics door-to-door with disastrous results. Fuller did not mind the jokes about his company. He felt that all the free publicity kept his advertising budget low.

Attempted to Build Morale

Selling door-to-door was a tough job. Salespeople received many rejections. Only two out of seven people who tried being Fuller Brush salespeople lasted at the job. Fuller knew how hard the work was, so he tried to build morale with company songs, pep talks, bonuses, commissions, and a 22-acre company park with a clubhouse. He tried to pass on his optimism and energy to his salespeople by telling them that "American ends with 'I can' and dough (meaning money) begins with 'do."'

During World War II, the company made fewer products for civilians and instead produced brushes for cleaning guns. Fuller remained president of the Fuller Brush Company until 1943, when his son Alfred Howard took over. His second son, Avard Ells, was in charge of sales. Fuller served as chairman of the board until 1968, when the company was sold to Consolidated Foods. By the 1970s, the company was still going strong, with over 25,000 salespeople covering the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

In 1959, Fuller became a member of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, which values dedication, purpose, and perseverance. In 1960, he published his autobiography, A Foot in the Door: The Life Appraisal of the Original Fuller Brush Man, as told to Hartzell Spence. Fuller loved travel and golf, but his main interest outside of work was Christian Science. When Fuller died in West Hartford, Connecticut on December 4, 1973, the Fuller Brush Company's income was $130 million annually.

Fuller's second wife, Mary Primrose Fuller, whom he married in 1932, donated her family home in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada, to the Yarmouth County Historical Society in 1996. The home, built around 1895, was used as the family's summer residence. The house still contains furniture that belonged to the Fuller family, including a fine Persian carpet and a baby grand piano, one of three made for royalty. The music-loving Mary Fuller died in October of 1997 at the age of 94. Her estate donated $15 million to the Hartt School, the University of Hartford's renowned music and performing arts school. Mary Fuller was a life-long amateur pianist who lived in nearby Bloomfield, Connecticut, a residential suburb of Hartford. Her bequest was the biggest gift in the university's 40-year history, and among the largest by an individual donor to any college or university in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Fuller, Alfred, A Foot in the Door: The Life Appraisal of the Original Fuller Brush Man, as told to Hartzell Spence, McGraw-Hill, 1960.

Mayberry, Jodine, Business Leaders who Built Financial Empires, Raintree Steck-Vaughn Publishers, 1995.

Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, (March 15, 1999).

YCM-Pelton-Fuller House, (March 15, 1999).

Your Fuller Brush Man Online, (March 15, 1999). □