A couple of summers ago, I’d read The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies and really enjoyed the fun spirit of the characters. Thanks to my lovely Goodreads recommendations, The Toothpaste Millionaire popped up. It had been on my to read list for a while, but only after a random trip to the library did I find this hiding on the shelf. The book was published in 1972 which is clear to the reader, especially when the characters discuss toothpaste prices.
Also, the narrator discusses how different Cleveland is from her hometown in Connecticut and how it was interesting to her, as a young white lady, that her best friend would be a young black man. Furthermore, their race doesn’t become an issue throughout the book, and they focus on working together to create a business. We see a very enthusiastic and smart crew of friends work with Rufus to create his vision of a cheaper toothpaste:
This is the story of my friend Rufus Mayflower and how he got to be a millionaire. With a little help from me. With a lot of help from me, as a matter of fact. But the idea was Rufus’s.
Sixth grader Rufus Mayflower doesn’t set out to become a millionaire. He just wants to save on toothpaste. Betting he can make a gallon of his own for the same price as one tube from the store, Rufus develops a step-by-step plan with help from his friends, classmates, and math teacher. By the time he reaches eighth grade, Rufus makes more than a gallon – he makes a million!
The narrator moves to Cleveland, Ohio and makes a new friend in her class, Rufus. They meet when he helps her pick up her books on the way to school. After she admires his custom saddlebags on his bike, she received a note in class.
You will need 2 1/4 yards of 36-inch-wide nylon, which is 97 cents a yard at Vince’s, which will come to $2.18 1/4, plus sales tax.
As their teacher intercepts the note, the fabric purchase turns into a math lesson for the rest of the class. Becoming good friends, the narrator learns that Rufus thinks about math and money a lot. Rufus decides that a 97 cent tube of toothpaste is expensive, and he believes he can make a better and less expensive version. His friends become his taste testers who turn down the curry toothpaste option and vote for the mint one instead.
Rufus soon creates his own assembly line of toothpaste, packed in recycled baby jars.
If there are 2 1/2 billion tubes of toothpaste sold in the U.S. in one year, and 1 out of 10 people switched to a new brand, how may tubes of the new brand would they be buying?
The right answer is 250 million. It took the class a while to figure that out. Some people have trouble remembering many zeroes there are in a billion.
Rufus and his business become popular, and the book follows the success of his toothpaste brand:
But three days after Rufus was on “The Joe Smiley Show” he got 689 for TOOTHPASTE. One came all the way from Venice, California, from a man who happened to be telephoning his daughter while she was watching the show in Cleveland. The daughter said, “There’s a kid here selling who’s selling toothpaste for 3 cents a jar.” And her father ordered three dozen jars. Fantastic!
Not only is this book fun to read, it is highly recommended for readers in the classroom. The characters are good friends, they work together to create a business and reflect the fun of entrepreneurship, and it moves quickly. Furthermore, the math is such a logical and realistic part of the book that it would be a great way to have students not only think through math equations, but understand the role of math problems in the real world.