The Fuller Brush Man
Dec 30th. 2023
Anyone under the age of 50 will have little knowledge of the significance of door-to-door selling beyond the 1970s. By this time the country had changed and in many ways for at least some of us, not for the better. Being a one percenter born in 1936, I was about to enter the world of the grownups in the early 50’s. I had a Toronto Star paper route almost as soon as arriving in Brampton when my family was reunited and a new member was added to our family, my little brother Gordon. We moved into a regular house that was quite rundown and ready for my father’s creative restoration skills. It was previously occupied by an older couple that left some furnishings including an old Pump Organ and a horse drawn single blade plough. I tried to plant a garden with Wayne on the horse end of the plough but at 6 years old, I was asking too much.
The organ was a blast and with my little brother on the pumping end, I was able to knock out some semblance of what might be called a tune. That only lasted a few days when a truck pulled up to the door and the town of Brampton garbage man came for the organ. It was unceremoniously thrown on the truck and taken to the dump. I think that gave me an appreciation for antiques that has followed me all my life. Brampton was a beautiful small town of about four to five thousand inhabitants. It was a wealthy town with two large shoe factories and many glass greenhouses producing mostly Roses that were sold all over Canada. There were many mansions for such a small community and they were a testament to how successful things were. Our house was not a mansion!
These were the days before Ozie and Harriet on TV, that show portrayed our life style only a few years later. Dad had a steady job and Mom was a Stay-at-home child nurturer, cook, cleaner, manager, shopper and all-around housewife. Mothers took their jobs very seriously and were sometimes not appreciated sufficiently for their skills. It was unheard of to have two cars in the driveway and so shopping you might think was a real challenge. It was not. The Baker brought bread and baked goods every day along with the Milkman with milk, cream, butter and a friendly smile. Mail was delivered daily. The knife sharpener man came once a year along with the junk man and once a month the Prudential Insurance man came for his .75 cent premium payment and to check as to how everyone was feeling. The Doctor came at once when needed and you did not have to remember everyone’s phone number in town as our telephone operator connected you at once on a Party line. Out of town calling was rare as it was Long Distance and expensive. Life was good and much less hectic.
Sundays were for resting the body and spirit and there was little to do on Sunday as only a few essential stores were open. Church, Sunday school and family gatherings were our retreats from a busy week.
The Fuller Brush Co. ranked very high in the hearts of the housewife of the day. The products were of the highest quality and delivered within a week or less by the salesman or his hired delivery man. Fuller Brush Men were professionally trained in presentation of product and his demeaner. The dress code was a tailored suit and fedora, white shirt and Tie and polished shoes and always we wore rubbers so that they could be removed before entering the house. Suit jackets could be removed on hot days but long-sleeved white shirts were demanded. A Fuller Brush man was rarely turned away from the door. He was the ultimate door-to-door salesman.
My training for sales was in an upscale shoe store in Brampton. I caught on very quickly and always won the coveted $1.00 prize for Saturday’ highest sales. It was a lot of money in those days as my take-home pay after 6 days of retail sales and cleaning, box labelling and window dressing was a paltry $28.60. I was 17 years old and working for almost a year when my mother asked if I would talk to Ross Barber, her Fuller Brush Man. “You might want to hear what he has to say”. This was the start of a very successful life as a real salesman.
My territory was a large area west of Brampton’s 1st line and north of hwy. 10 including Streetsville, Meadowvale, Huttonsville and the north end of Cooksville. Today, this is all covered with asphalt, industry and residential housing, but then it was one of the most varied landscapes of farm, forest,
winding creeks and beautiful country roads. We were living in paradise, the Breadbasket of Ontario.
In spite of the fact, I had been singing in the church and with my soon to be wife, Joan, and her cousin Jim and Judy in a quartet and being the MC for many Young People’s events, I was as nervous as one could imagine making my very first call as a young Fuller Brush Man. I had no idea how I would be received.
My misgivings were put to rest with my first call. My first week went well and within a month I was netting over $100.00 per week income.
My day started quite early as our group of 3-5 including our team captain, would gather at the local Chinese restaurant at 7:00 AM. This meeting was held 5 days a week and its purpose was 2-fold, to motivate us and inform us about the week’s specials. It also had a third hidden motivation. That was to make sure we all got going every morning. Self-employment can lead to slow starts and we needed to be ready for a hard day beating the pavement. Our first call was at 8:00AM. The daily routine went like this. In the evening after all your day was completed in sales, about 5:00PM, 100 glossy catalogues were distributed to be picked up the next day along with an order. This should develop into about $100.00 in sales and a commission of $48.00. That theory worked in the city but certainly not in Farm country where houses were far apart. This meant that I had to make the best of the situation and be a better salesman to make up for the lack of customer contact. I rarely made the prescribed quota but I did very well anyway. There were costs of doing business. Gas for the car, catalogues cost .35 cents each and the handy brush or other free gifts cost about .25-.35 cents each. Freedom was a wonderful plus but couldn’t be taken advantage of because that would affect sales and commissions and eventually my job. I learned something very early in my career, the harder I worked the more money I made. That is rare in a 9 – 5 job.
If I hired a delivery person, I would have more time to stay organized and even do some selling. So, I advertised for a delivery man and got a reply from a middle-aged Englishman. He was not very presentable in his appearance but seemed honest enough so I became an employer with my first employee. I was taking a big chance on this fellow as he would sometimes have as much as $300 - $500.00 worth of goods and or the cash from it. One Saturday when he had a large order that filled his Morris Oxford and was 4 hours late returning, I was frantic that something had happened to him, was he robbed? Did he abscond with my money and stuff? I didn’t think this rough neck would rob me, but over $500.00 was a lot of money. Fred did finally return and in he came, red nose and wrinkled and somewhat in a dither as he was not able to deliver the whole order as his car broke down and quite a few orders had not been delivered as they could not be paid for. I guess I oversold some of my lovely ladies. He did bring back a chicken and two dozen eggs in lieu of cash. Some days Fred was a little short on his cash but I had to overlook that as he was basically honest and took a lot of pressure off of me.
Going to Jail.
Fred was not always available for delivery leaving me to do the heavy work and collecting the hard-earned money. Streetsville was the most lucrative part of my territory. More houses closer together add up to less work and bigger sales. I was parked in the driveway of a customer in Streetsville when the local police officer pulled in behind me and arrested me on the spot. No amount of resistance stopped him from hauling me into the police station downtown. I was glad that it was me and not Fred but finally I was able to get the charges explained to me. I was soliciting sales without a license. I explained that that was not true and that I was only making a delivery. “ You don’t need a license to make a delivery”, I exclaimed. That didn’t wash and I was to pay for a license on the spot, or else! My thoughts were, or else What? Would I be locked up for the week-end? I had no intention of paying for a license. Even I knew that this was a scam, but for what reason? I needed help in my predicament and what did we have a senior manager for if not to handle this? Mr. Beckwith was that person and he was the big wig next to senior management in Hamilton. Beckwith lived in Oakville in a lovely home that I intended to have some day and we held our monthly meetings there in his basement. Over 20 sales agents in the Toronto area would gather for hype and presentation of bone china cups and saucers and neckties as prizes for outstanding sales results. To get out of this I gave the cop Beckwith’s name and told him to call and sort this out with him. After a lengthy conversation that I was not able to hear, I was released and off I went a free man. I found out later that my little incident was caused by my competition, the Rawleigh salesman who was a cousin of the police officer. My sales abilities were costing this guy’s sales to plummet and he used his connections to solve his problems. It didn’t work and I worked even harder to eventually put him out of business.
Shotguns and brushes don’t mix.
It was a hot muggy day in August and the dusty drive into the farmhouse rose in a huge cloud behind me. This was my first time here and it was a cold call as I didn’t get many catalogues out the night before. My powder blue 1953 Chevy would be covered with dust. I was hoping this call would be worthwhile. As I was getting out of my car, I greeted the man coming out of the house. “How do you do sir. I am your Fuller brush man”. By this time, I could see that he had a gun, he did have a gun and a big one. The double barrels of his shotgun were firmly pressed under my nostrils and his next remark chilled me to the bone. “I don’t care who you are, get in that fancy car and F… off, and don’t bother to turn around, BACK out! When I finally reached the highway, I was quite upset and ready to call it a day. It was hard to imagine driving all the way home in my condition and I knew that if I did, I might never have the ability to make another call. I spotted a little white cottage and it seemed inviting to me so I knocked and a pleasant woman answered. Before I could introduce myself, she said “young man, are you alright? you look terrible. I told her my story. She apologized and explained that her neighbour was also her father-in-law, he lived alone and was taken by a Charlatan who faked his identity and took a large deposit on a new vacuum cleaner that was never delivered. Danger hides around many corners.
The stimulation for me to write this piece was while doing my morning routine at my bathroom sink, I came across three products used every day that I had as samples 70 years ago from my Fuller Brush days. A nail brush, a clothes brush and a hair brush. They are in excellent condition and attest to the quality of this company’s products. I sold not only brushes and brooms but a vast line of cleaning, cosmetic and sundry items. All of wonderful quality that is rarely found on the store shelves to-day. These few months earned me a university degree in sales and business management and set me off on a very successful journey as a professional salesman.
The work ethic was established and all the puzzle pieces were ready for creating my picture to the future. It was not to be a door-to-door salesman even if I did enjoy going to work every day and I sure enjoyed the financial rewards. Being realistic, I had to move on and take a step back to eventually project myself into a more meaningful career. My next move was a salesman in training with a large Canadian Manufacturer and for the paltry sum of $50.00 per week.
Paul D. Scott rantingsandraves.com