I grew up in the age before going shopping was something that was done for pleasure. You shopped when you needed something, and – other than grocery shopping, which was an every week thing, with mini excursions mid-week, when kids were dispatched to pick up a box of raisins or whatever – was a Big Deal.
When my sister Kath and I went “down city” with our mother, we got dressed up – hats, white gloves, patent leather shoes – and took the bus for our forays to Denholm’s, Filene’s, and Barnard’s.
Surprisingly, there was also quite a bit of shopping done from the home. We had a milk man (Blanchard’s Dairy) who came a couple of times a week, and a bread man (Cushman’s Bakery) who did the same. For non-food stuff, you could order from the Sears catalogue. You could buy things from the Avon Lady (my mother’s friend Helen: I still remember trudging up the gloomy back stairs of Helen’s three-decker to drop off the payment and pick up the hand lotion). And you could buy things from the Fuller Brush man.
My mother bought hair brushes and, I think, some cleaning supplies. But the best thing about a visit from the Fuller Brush man was that he left a small sample-sized bottle of lilac toilet water. If you overlooked the – tee-hee – word toilet water, what you had (if you’re an imaginative six-year old) was a bottle of perfume. I still remember what it smells like. It’s one of the olfactory “madeleine” moments of my childhood. I’d know that scent anywhere.
While Fuller Brush is a thing of my particular past, it’s still in the present for the three Fuller Brush men who continue to ply their trade in Massachusetts.
Al Cohen is one of them, and he was profiled recently in The Boston Globe. Cohen, who’s 64, has been selling for Fuller for over 40 years.
During the company’s peak in the late 1950s and 1960s, there were up to 35,000 salespeople across the country, the majority of them men, said Larry Gray, vice president of consumer sales for Fuller Brush which is based in Napa, Calif.
There were female “Fullerettes,” too, selling cosmetics and hair products, but it was the Fuller Brush man who achieved pop culture status. He showed up in comic strips and a Disney movie, “Three Little Pigs.” Blues singer Julia Lee crooned a raunchy “I’ve got a Crush on the Fuller Brush Man” in the late 1930s. Radio and television personality Red Skelton starred in a “Fuller Brush Man” movie in 1948.
Actually, I’m sorry to read that Red Skelton (yuck) played a Fuller Brush, but that “Crush on the Fuller Brush Man” put a smile on my face in a way that so-called comedian Red Skelton never did.
Cohen’s route is Newton – so he probably sold to my Aunt Margaret – and Hull – so he may have tried his luck with my sister Kath, who lived in that town for a number of years.
He still has his loyal customers – most of them older folks, but lest you think that Fuller is a dying business, the company also does a good business online, in what’s a restart of an old brand.
David Sabin, chief executive of the Fuller Brush Co., bought it in 2013 after the company went bankrupt.
“I decided the brand was a great nostalgic brand,” he said. The challenge was: “How do we bring it to the millennial customer?”
Their solution has been to go where they go. Though the company has kept staples like mops and detergent, it’s also launched a line of hipper home products like bamboo cutting boards and “eco-friendly” cooking utensils. Some are sold at Williams-Sonoma and Anthropologie. Everything is available online. Sales, Sabin said, are up.
Alas, I checked the Fuller site out and I couldn’t find any of that lilac toilet water. Come on, Mr. Stein. It may not appeal to the millennials, but I can guarantee you’ll appeal to a few of us boomers.
As for Al Cohen, as long as there are folks buying, he’ll be out selling.
“It keeps me going,” he said. “And if I stopped, it would almost be a letdown for some of my customers. Some of them depend on me.”
After 40 years at it, I wish him well. Keep up the good work.