Tupperware. The plastic. The convenience. The legend. And of course, the parties. Remember those? They’re still very much a thing. I’ve never been to one, but they look fun.
Tupperware pioneered plastic housewares right around the time when plastic was coming into its own, and pretty much every American household has Tupperware somewhere.
Well, almost. My dad worked in housewares distribution for many years, so when I was growing up we always had more of that stuff than we knew what to do with. Rubbermaid. Sterilite. United Plastics. Pretty much every mid-priced to cheaper brand on the market. Not a lot of Tupperware, though. My mom’s sole items are a few bowls, a pitcher and a lidded cupcake container. She’s used these things for probably fifty years and they’re still in perfect condition.
While Tupperware was one of many companies plying the plastic trade after World War Two, they had an ace up their sleeve: Brownie Wise. Bob Kealing takes a detailed and fascinating look at this gutsy, determined lady in Life Of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built and Lost a Tupperware Party Empire.
The book hits the ground running by starting on January 29, 1958, the day when Wise and the Tupperware company parted ways. It doesn’t say why at the outset but dangles that day’s significance before the reader like a bait fish in front of a hungry trout.
Brownie Humphrey was born in Buford, Georgia in 1913, and from the beginning she was not the conventional type. Her parents were always away working, so early on Brownie was accustomed to fending for herself, albeit with help from extended family. She dropped out of school after the eighth grade because school just wasn’t her thing.
Yet she dreamed of being a businesswoman or a lawyer and learned all she could on her own. Nowadays Brownie might be an R.O.P. student, but that didn’t exist back then. Instead, she attended business conferences geared toward young women, where she learned public speaking.
Brownie’s life changed when she won a mural contest in Texas in 1936. While in Dallas, she met Robert W. Wise and was immediately smitten. The two were married in December of that year and had a son, Jerry, in 1938, but the marriage was short-lived as Robert was alcoholic and abusive.
Wise was a single mom by 1941 and supported her son during the war by working as an executive for Bendix, a Detroit company that made airplane brakes for the Navy. After that, she moved on to the Stanley Company–yes, as in Stanley Steamer–where she made good money but was told she would never move into management because she was a woman.
Meanwhile, in Massachussetts, Earl Tupper began marketing a plastic bowl he’d invented during the war out of some slag given to him by a Bakelite representative. What made the bowl distinctive was its tightly-sealing lid, which had been inspired by paint can lids. Tupper was always tinkering with various inventions, and with plastics being the wave of the future he had an inkling that these new housewares could catch on.
Wise first encountered Tupperware in 1947 when Wise’s teenaged co-worker, Gary McDonald showed her some Wonder Bowls at a Stanley meeting. McDonald noticed Tupperware sitting on a shelf in the J.L. Hudson department store obviously gathering dust, and he also noticed no one bought these items unless store personnel demonstrated how they worked.
The wheels in McDonald’s head were spinning. The Stanley company had a Home Party division that demonstrated their products, so why not do the same thing with Tupperware?
Brownie took some convincing. Like most people at that time, she thought Tupperware was too flimsy, too floppy, would leak, and so on. As she played around with the Wonder Bowl, though, she was astonished to see that the bowl could bounce. And she found the seal worked by pushing the air out with the thumb once the lid was on. Brownie called this “burping.”
Once she knew her job at Stanley was a dead end, Brownie moved over to Tupperware, taking Gary McDonald with her.
Their new boss, Earl Tupper, was not a salesman by any stretch of the imagination, but he had to admit that his product needed a more personal approach to sell. He already had a mail-in catalogue and door-to-door salespeople, but when he noticed Brownie and Gary bringing in cartloads of money via their home parties, he decided to make parties Tupperware’s primary selling method. He also asked Brownie if she would head up his Florida sales division.
Brownie jumped at the chance, and after a few false starts revolutionized Tupperware, becoming the public face of the company and bringing in millions of dollars. She had some surprising ways of showing how leakproof Tupperware bowls were, such as tossing a bowl of water across a room. Brownie was fantastic at motivating her dealers, who caught her spirit of fun and had a ball putting on these parties, which had games, eats, and prizes.
Naturally, Brownie enjoyed herself immensely, living in a mansion on the shores of Lake Tohopekaliga that she named “Water’s Edge.” A nearby island became the setting for one of her next ideas, the Jubilee, which is still held every year for top wage-earners.
So after all this, why did Earl Tupper fire Brownie? Well, he and Brownie had a falling out. Tupper wanted to sell the Tupperware company. He also may have been jealous of Brownie’s success. The ousting was carefully planned and ruthlessly executed, with the company kicking Brownie and Jerry out of Water’s Edge, which the company owned, and, per Tupper’s orders, erasing her face and presence from Tupperware’s materials and history. Brownie sued the company and settled out of court for $30,000.
Brownie tried and failed to start up some direct sales cosmetics companies, but she finally settled into retirement, getting involved at her church and enjoying hobbies such as throwing pots. She died in 1992 at the age of 79.
Aside from a fascinating 2004 American Masters documentary, Brownie Wise was largely forgotten for many years. Kealing’s book, which was originally titled Tupperware Unsealed, revived interest in her, drawing from extensive materials at the Smithsonian and interviews with Jerry Wise. Kealing doesn’t leave anything out and this is a real good thing because the book is a real pleasure.
Kealing’s book is also a long-overdue tribute to Brownie Wise. At the time Life of the Party was published, there really was no significant memorial to her that people could visit. Water’s Edge was allowed to fall into disrepair and was finally torn down in 1989. Brownie’s grave marker in the Pleasant Hill Cemetery is so non-descript it might as well say, “Kiss the gardener.”
This all changed in 2017, when Brownie Wise Park opened at the Tupperware Island Conservation Area. Located near the former site of Water’s Edge, it’s twenty-five acres of green space just made for kayaking, picnicking, and exploring. Brownie loved visiting the island with Jerry, and it’s a safe bet she’d be tickled pink that people are enjoying one of her favorite spots.
Besides the park, Tupperware now goes out of its way to pay homage to Brownie. She’s prominently featured on their website, and every year at Jubilee the Brownie Wise Award is given out to the top seller in each region of North America.
However, Kealing’s book is the best place to sit down and get to know Brownie Wise. What I like about her is that she didn’t let people telling her she couldn’t do something stop her from achieving. She didn’t waste time tearing down other people on her way to success. Instead, she built them up, and that sort of thing never fails to inspire. I enjoyed reading Life of the Party and just may buy some Tupperware in honor of Brownie. Although I doubt I’ll be recreating her bowl-of-water trick.
Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back on Friday for a look at a horror classic. Have a good one…