Lessons from Fuller Brush
In 1903, Alfred Fuller left home in Nova Scotia and followed his older siblings south to Somerville, Massachusetts. There he set about getting fired from everything he tried.
Fuller got fired from jobs as a gardener, floor sweeper, and delivery boy. Then his older brother got him a job selling brushes door to door for William Staples’ Somerville Brush and Mop Company.
He worked hard and smart. He asked his housewife customers for cleaning tips. He shared them with other customers. He dressed neatly and was unfailingly polite. Sometimes he even helped customers with housework.
Fuller became fascinated with what he called "the brush." He asked his customers about the cleaning they did. They described their problems and Fuller began to sketch out designs for brushes that would solve those problems. He created camel-hair brushes for cleaning silk hats and long-handled furniture dusters. A special brush made cleaning radiators easier and more effective.
He approached his bosses about making these higher quality brushes. They weren’t interested. They were doing well selling a few general-purpose brushes designed to fall apart quickly. So, Arthur sat down and calculated what he would need to make the brushes he imagined. The total came to $375 to produce "the best products of their kind in the world."
On New Year's Day, 1906, Alfred Fuller began going door to door, selling the brushes he had made in his sister's basement. He made $6 that first day and $8500 that first year. For a while, Alfred made brushes at night and handled sales and deliveries during the day. By 1909 he was worn down and needed help. He created his great achievement: The Fuller Brush Man.
He didn't hire salesmen. Instead, he contracted with independent "dealers." He set standards for their conduct. They were to dress in a suit and tie. Every dealer signed a pledge to be courteous, kind, sincere, and helpful.
The selling routine was simple. Knock on the door or ring the bell, and then take two steps backward. Hold up the Handy Brush (invented by Fuller as a giveaway) and something else (a spatula perhaps). Give the housewife her choice of gift if she allowed you to enter her home.
The Saturday Evening Post called the dealers "Fuller Brush Men" in 1922 and the name stuck. By 1923, Fuller Brush Men were selling $15 million worth of brushes and cleaning products. The company claimed that throughout the mid-1950s, Fuller Brush Men called on nine out of ten US households.
During World War II, Fuller Brush shifted to making brushes to support the war effort. So many men went off to war that the company experimented with Fuller Brush Girls.
Alfred Fuller retired in 1942. His son, Howard, took his place at the helm and continued innovating.
In 1948, Red Skelton starred in the movie, "The Fuller Brush Man." In 1950, Lucille Ball played the lead in "The Fuller Brush Girl." They were an important and beloved part of America.
But the times were changing. More women worked, so fewer were home during the day. Shopping malls and automobiles made it easy for them to go out shopping. The company added cleaning products to its offerings. They tried different ways of building a business.
After Howard died in an automobile accident in 1959, the company lost momentum and direction. It was acquired several times. In 2018 Galaxy Brush purchased the name and all trademarks and patents of Fuller Brush. They now do business under the Fuller Brush name.
The best innovations and businesses start with what customers need.
Innovation is not just for products. Make changes to improve the way you do business.
When the world changes, you should, too.