Engineer Earl Tupper developed his namesake Tupperware from discarded plastic slag. But it was single mom Brownie Wise who knew how to market the product. Headstrong and spirited, she created a sales juggernaut, empowered women otherwise saddled with domestic duties in the early 1950s and turned herself into a national business figure. Bob Kealing writes the story of this quasi-forgotten businesswoman in Life of the Party, published last month by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Crown Publishing. And Brownie may soon come to the screen in a movie with Sandra Bullock. You can purchase Life of the Party at local booksellers or here or here.
TO UNDERSTAND WHY Tupperware took off so quickly in the mid-fifties, one must also understand the context from which it emerged. Beyond the general optimism of the postwar years, in 1954, the can-do attitude and Tupperware team building—the all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit—contrasted with other events happening in the country. On March 9, 1954, legendary newsman Edward R. Murrow dedicated his entire See It Now program to skewering Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Communist fearmongering. Regarded as one of the great early milestones of television news, the program rocked McCarthy’s credibility and hastened his downfall.
In the U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the historic majority opinion on the case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring as unconstitutional the so-called “separate but equal” racially segregated schools. In seventeen states, including Florida, where such schools were the norm, the ensuing months and years were tense as the court’s decision was enforced, sometimes with black students escorted by soldiers.
With so much fear and uncertainty pervading the American landscape, people were ready for a dose of wholesome distraction. As such, [Tupperware Home Parties Inc.] executives kept the pressure on themselves to come up with the next great contest, incentive, or publicity initiative. Brainstorming sessions would continue late into the night, often out at Water’s Edge, which could be a problem for staff who lived a good distance away from Wise’s isolated home. “We’d be out there late into the evening, then have to go home to wherever home was, Orlando or Kissimmee,” McDonald recalled, “and we’d have to be in at eight the next morning.” The team discussed at length how to make THP’s annual birthday party a much bigger event.
“We talked about the ‘pilgrimage’ ”—a fond memory from their Stanley days—“and Brownie came up with the name ‘jubilee,’ ” remembered McDonald. “Then we started working on how we could add a lot of pizzazz to it.” The event they hatched, the first annual Tupperware Homecoming Jubilee, would have a western theme, and like miners at a gold rush, top dealers would have the chance to prospect for $75,000 worth of prizes in an event created just for them. That wasn’t all. In concert with the long hours of training, speeches, and graduation ceremonies, attendees could win one of a fleet of automobiles, mink stoles, or “freezer units.” THP’s Public Relations Department sent invitations to the national press and media, hoping they might be interested in the spectacle, and their hunch paid off.
Before the jubilee could begin, however, plans had to accelerate on several new facilities at headquarters: Workers welded together steel beams on the roof of the new Garden Pavilion, a venue they designed to seat one thousand people. They also poured concrete into a quadrangle and planted shrubs and trees for the Garden of the Palms. In the Magic Kitchen, visitors could take in the glory of Tupperware products and their many uses. With the ten-panel mural complete, the Museum of Art focused on a first-of-its-kind exhibit featuring the evolution of dishes. Tupperware headquarters was set to become the world-class tourist attraction Brownie Wise hoped it would be. As a finishing touch, floodlights bathed the headquarters building in dramatic light for those who drove by on the Orange Blossom Trail.
On April 2, 1954, the Kissimmee Gazette ran a front-page story, with an accompanying photograph of Tupperware headquarters, heralding the “Cinderella” company’s plans for its first jubilee: “Mrs. Wise has led the company in its rapid growth to second place among all sales corporations merchandising on the home party plan. The multi-million dollar corporation has doubled its business during each of the past two years and is expected to triple this year.” Often, articles like this jubilee announcement were little more than company press releases reprinted verbatim, even if the sales accomplishments were a bit overstated.
Curiously, the Kissimmee Gazette piece also notes that Tupperware Home Parties Inc. had been founded three years before by “the Tupper Corporation of Massachusetts.” Nowhere does it mention founding father Earl Tupper, still the president of Tupperware Home Parties. Nor did Tupper accept a role in any of the inaugural jubilee activities.
On the opening day of Tupperware’s first jubilee, Monday, April 5, 1954, the Edgewater High School band played, and Brownie Wise cut the ribbon on a new era of prosperity and recognition for Tupperware dealers and distributors; her boss, Earl Tupper; and herself. False-front, frontier-style buildings were constructed, and Brahman bulls and horses were carted in to give the grounds a western feel. If there was ever a golden age of Tupperware, it began on this date.
Service to others was the apt theme of Wise’s welcome speech to the 633 dealers, managers, and distributors assembled in the new Garden Pavilion. Without people near the top bringing along eager, but inexperienced, people near the bottom, Tupperware’s success could not have happened. “It is a time for gratification and it is a time for Thanksgiving,” Wise told them. “We would not be human if we were not gratified at the success the last three years has brought us. We would not be very worthwhile human beings if we were not thankful for it. Thankful not for luck, in which I have very little confidence, but thankful for the strength which has been given to our hands and the ingenuity that has been given to our minds, and the willingness with which our spirits have been enriched.”
The next day brought the fun and excitement that many of the Tupperware faithful had traveled hundreds of miles at their own expense to experience. On an unseasonably warm, ninety-degree, sun-drenched day, hundreds of Tupperware people dressed in cowboy hats, boots, and other western wear—“90% of them women”—were led to an area referred to as the “Forest of Spades.” Shovels that McDonald and his team had borrowed from the Kissimmee street department stuck out of the ground, waiting to be chosen and used. Each person in the assemblage would get a chance to dig until they unearthed a hidden treasure, sometimes sealed up in Tupperware containers. The better-performing dealers would dig in roped-off areas with higher-end loot.
For five-and-a-half hours, with Brownie Wise barking encouragement through a loudspeaker, women hopped on shovels as if they were pogo sticks, prodding and pulling hidden treasure from the sandy Florida soil, while their curious, bewildered family members looked on, screamed, shouted, and exalted in one of the most unique and truly joyous experiences of their lives. Four women who fainted in the heat were carried off on stretchers and later revived with smelling salts.
Betty Long of West Rushville, Ohio, preened after unearthing a carefully wrapped mink stole; Collette Maniaci of Dearborn, Michigan, beamed with pride at the $60 gold watch she prospected; Edith Berkenbile of Oklahoma City needed a titanic effort to pull a $70 radio from the ground; and Fay Maccalupo of Buffalo, New York, sat exhausted atop a toy Ford she had finally exhumed. When the Tupperware team showed her the real-life car it represented, Maccalupo pressed her face against the hood and, sobbing uncontrollably, kept repeating, “I love everybody.”
Originally, McDonald and his team had buried the prizes eighteen inches deep. Some of the soil was so swampy that items like diamond rings and pen-and-pencil sets that had been buried in small containers weren’t recovered until Vanguard Lake was created years later. “They dug the lake, ran the dragline,” McDonald chuckled, “and came up with the Tupperware with the gift items still in them.”
The treasure dig had been a sensation; the press and media loved it, too. The leading television news network at the time, CBS, carried film footage on its evening news, and the British Broadcasting Company aired the story in England. Life magazine documented all the zany events in a multi-page photo spread entitled “Life Goes on a Big Dig.” The magazine reported, tongue-in-cheek, that the women, along with digging up thousands of dollars in prizes, “raised a crop of bonus blisters as big as doubloons.”
Wise spun news of the coming national publicity about Tupperware’s first jubilee into more acclaim within the local community. “Brownie Wise, brilliant chief of Tupperware Home Parties Inc., called us Wednesday morning and she was so jubilant,” the Kissimmee Gazette gushed in an editorial after Wise contacted them with news of the upcoming publicity. “And it all can be attributed to Mrs. Brownie Wise, who is fighting for Kissimmee heart and soul, day and night.”
As exciting as the Life spread and resulting local acclaim was, Brownie Wise received an even more significant honor as a result of the first annual Tupperware Homecoming Jubi- lee. In its April 17, 1954, issue, Business Week devoted seven pages to an article so complimentary to Tupperware and its home selling system that it could have been written by Wise herself. In a move that might as well have been a coronation of Wise as the queen of home-party sales, the magazine featured her smiling face on the cover—the first woman Business Week ever gave that recognition. In the photograph, Wise holds a polyethylene block like the one Earl Tupper was given all those years ago, and from which he invented Tupperware. Beneath the cover photograph runs a phrase that through the years came to be known as the Brownie Wise sales mantra: “If we build the people, they’ll build the business.”
The magazine described Tupperware’s jubilee as being a three-part combination of “sales training session, circus, and a revival meeting.” At the center of it all was the woman Business Week called a “Prophet in Plastic,” the charming forty-year-old “widow” whom the magazine identified as “the heart and soul” of the three-part hoopla. Wise chose not to reveal her divorce for fear it could lead to her unstable ex- husband—and the real possibility of personal and professional embarrassment.
Reprinted from Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire. Copyright © 2008, 2016 by Bob Kealing. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.