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A 90-year-old foot in the door

For 71 years, this Fuller Brush Man has driven the roads of central Washington in a sedan full of brooms, mops and stain removers. And he's cleaned up with a lot of hard work and a polished routine.

March 18, 2009|Kim Murphy

BURIEN, WASH. — He knows you know how to get the grunge off your stove top. Everybody does. But do you know the best way?

Probably, he says, you use one of those soapy steel wool pads. Sure, they work. But have you noticed how they get all rusty after you've used them a time or two? Then they start shedding yucky steel fibers under your fingernails.

What if he told you there was a pad that didn't make a mess at all? Cleans your stove right up with just a little bit of this degreaser. And it lasts a whole year. How many would you like? Now what about this nifty clamp for it, so you don't have to get those pretty hands wet?

For 71 years, Art Pearson has been plying the byways of central Washington in a sedan stuffed with brooms, stain removers, scented moth blocks and brushes for every wall, floor and nook known to man.

He may be the oldest working Fuller Brush Man -- a neatly pressed throwback to a time when the suburbs were sprouting three-bedroom dream homes like dandelions. When kitchens were clean. When a woman's work was never done. When there was no cleaning dilemma for which an appropriate brush could not be found.

"People talk about a recession? People still have to maintain their house. Everybody needs something to clean with," said Pearson, who will turn 91 in April. "And if you tell 'em it's made in the USA, that's what people want to hear. People like the product. Anybody could sell it if they wanted to go out and work."

To see Pearson on the doorstep in his dark gray suit, crisp white shirt and red-and-blue tie is to wake up on a summer morning with "I Love Lucy" on TV, the whistle of the Helms bakery truck outside and three months without school stretched ahead like Aladdin's carpet. So what if Mom is muttering on her hands and knees behind the toilet with a rag in her fist?

"I'll just step in a minute with your free gift," Pearson says, dangling a pastry brush and rubber spatula in a hint of treasures to come.

His routine is polished -- and rarely misses.

"When I first started, they told us, 'Don't go around in an old dirty shirt,' " Pearson says. "You dress up and look neat if you're selling high-quality merchandise," he says.

"We were taught, you come up to the door, you put your suitcase on the right-hand side, knock on the door, then step back two feet. And then say, "May I step in and give you your free gift?' You lay the velvet tray out and you demonstrate the merchandise."

Alfred C. Fuller, the Nova Scotia farm boy who started off in 1906 designing brushes on his workbench and selling them around town, created one of America's most formidable door-to-door sales empires. By the 1950s and 1960s, the Fuller Brush Co. had become an American institution, with overall annual sales reaching nearly $100 million.

It traded on the idea that anyone could make money with a good product and a lot of hard work, and on a society that still could afford stay-at-home mothers who kept up with the neighbors by the gleam of the linoleum on their kitchen floors.

"My life is proof of the tremendous power available to everyone to vault above his own deficiencies," Fuller wrote in his autobiography, "A Foot in the Door."

Fuller's particular niche was to make a better brush, and a brush for almost anything. A catalog from the 1960s featured a water-streaming shower brush, brushes for complexions, manicures, shaving, jars, bottles, lint, percolators, teeth, dentures and paint, along with various mops and brooms.

"Every woman wants to stay as young and attractive as she can. She wants a clean, fresh, radiant complexion . . . soft, lustrous hair. And she is equally interested in the appearance of her home," says the catalog's introduction. "Your Fuller Brush Man will gladly demonstrate how each Fuller item in this book can help make your life less work and more fun."

Over the years, legions of Fuller salesmen went house to house, ready at the slightest sign of encouragement to let loose a load of popcorn on the floor in order to demonstrate the abilities of the motorless carpet sweeper or to scrub the soot off the wall behind the radiator (without scratching the wallpaper!)

"See, here's the thing I learned," Pearson says. "When I call on you, I don't say: 'I'm the Fuller Brush Man.' You'll say, 'I don't need any brushes.' I come to the door and I say, 'I'm the Fuller Man.' That way I get in, I tell people what's on sale, what's good.

"Then I've just got a habit of checking out a house when I come in, see what they might need. My eyes flip around the room. I might suggest a wall brush to clean the ceiling, and I often go for the pre-laundry stain cleaner. I always go into that. I learned, sell three things at a time. Never sell just one."

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