Those of you who join me at the Campfire Chronicle with any regularity know there is a general theme around here. Western. I love all things Western. Sometimes a story doesn’t quite fit into the Western mold, but I still find myself unable to resist telling you about it. This is one of those times. So, go ahead and tie up your horses because you won’t be needing them for the next few minutes. Today, I’m going to tell you about a lady named Brownie Wise, a mid-century housewife who became the indomitable force behind one of the most successful marketing programs in American history: The Tupperware Party. So, kick off your boots and untie your bandanna ’cause this story calls for kitten heels and a strand of pearls!
Prior to getting into the meat of this story, we need to start with the first course—the invention of Tupperware. Before Earl Tupper, businessman and inventor of Tupperware, made good in the 1940s, he fell flat on his face. He had the kind of lean times that make a success story so compelling. When his landscaping and nursery business went belly up during the Great Depression, he filed for bankruptcy. The would-be inventor eventually landed a job with DuPont Chemical Company. He spent his time learning his way around plastics.
Tupper’s supervisor at DuPont gave him pieces of rigid, polyethylene slag, The slag, which was a waste product of the oil refining process, could have gone by another name—trash! Like a boy with a chemistry set, the industrious Tupper experimented with purifying the slag and molding it into non-breakable, plastic creations. In 1938, he founded Tupperware Plastics Company, where he molded cups, plates, bowls and containers. He even molded gas masks for WWII.
After the war, there wasn’t a big market for gas masks, but Tupper felt certain that housewives could use his kitchen goods. The goods weren’t quite ready, though. He wanted something that would make the women of America flip their lids. But what could that something be? Lids! He needed to make lids! He molded airtight, liquid-proof, burp when you seal them lids! I’m not sure if Tupper was an evil genius or not, but it is an indisputable scientific fact that Tupperware lids mysteriously disappear from kitchen cabinets, thereby practically guaranteeing continued sales. Mwah-ha-ha!
The Life of the Tupperware Party
In 1946, Tupperware hit the shelves of hardware and department stores. Yet, shockingly, in the beginning, those plastic bowls with lids did not sell themselves. As basic as it sounds, housewives didn’t understand why they might need bowls with lids. They didn’t understand the beauty of being able to seal your food, stick it back in the fridge and throw it away on another day! (Or maybe that’s just me.)
This is where Brownie Wise entered the picture. Besides having a name that sounded like she should be involved in a food storage company, Wise had other unique qualifications, which made her the perfect person to get Tupperware off the shelves and into homes across America. Wise was already selling cleaning aids and brushes for Stanley Home Products, at in-home party demonstrations. She was a divorced mother with an eighth grade education, and she had drive. She also had more than a smidgen of marketing genius and she understood the needs of homemakers. When she saw Tupperware, she began purchasing the products through her local distributors. Then she sold it along with the merchandise from Stanley Home Products.
Wise’s demonstrations made all the difference. It was a fresh idea and women were helpless to resist those burping airtight lids and unbreakable bowls! Wise sold so much Tupperware that she stopped selling Stanley Home Products and began recruiting other people to sell Tupperware. In 1950, Wise moved to Florida and began a business she called Tupperware Patio Parties. The Tupperware Patio Parties with their camaraderie and burpable lid demonstrations were selling far more Tupperware than the stale, old, store displays!
Earl Tupper took notice. He had created his own home party division at Tupperware, but it was staler than week-old tater tot casserole covered in wrinkled, tin foil. Convinced that Brownie Wise had some magic ingredient, Tupper arranged for a meeting in 1951. He offered her the position of vice president of Tupperware and took the products off of store shelves. From that point on, it was strictly party time for Tupperware.
Brownie Wise was, in fact, wise (and I hope to goodness she liked brownies). She realized that American women were in a vulnerable place. So many women had been given a taste of life beyond the kitchen, during WWII, only to have their jobs snatched away from them at war’s end. She knew that even the happiest of homemakers was often looking for a little independence and adventure.
Women’s Lib and Burping Lids
Becoming a Tupperware Lady meant that a typical housewife with a yearning for more could earn money and gain personal fulfillment without neglecting her family. An ad recruiting Tupperware Ladies asked, “Honestly, now… Haven’t you always wanted a career of your very own? Enter the wonderful world of carefree homemaking with Tupperware.”
Wise started Tupperware’s Jubilee, which was a four-day sales meeting on steroids. Tupperware’s Jubilee provided Tupperware Ladies a chance to break free from the everyday and enjoy entertainment, luxury prizes, and costumed theme nights. Wise’s philosophy was, “If we build the people, they’ll build the business.”
Women who weren’t interested in a career with Tupperware still enjoyed attending the parties. They snatched up those plastic bowls and Jell-O molds while playing games like, “Write an Honest Advert to Sell Your Husband.” It was a brave, new world!
In 1954, Brownie Wise had become the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week. America loved her! In 1957, she published Best Wishes, Brownie, in which she encouraged women to claim their wishes. Wise seemed to have everything she had ever wished for. But Tupper began to fear Wise’s celebrity status was becoming a distraction to the business of keeping food fresh. He fired her from the company in 1958. Wise went after Tupperware for $1.3 million in a wrongful termination suit, but eventually settled for a mere $30,000—approximately one year’s salary. Shortly after the settlement, Tupper sold the Tupperware Company to Rexall Drug Company for $16 million.
A 1960’s ad for Tupperware proclaimed, “Tupperware! Best thing that’s happened to women since they got the vote!” As hokey as that sounds, it may have been true. Tupperware parties paved the way for direct selling in cosmetic companies and other industries. And we have Brownie Wise to thank for that.
I know that you will enjoy watching this short documentary film about Brownie!