Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fantastic Plastic: The Rise and Fall of Brownie Wise


Chances are you don't know who the lady in the picture is, which is a shame - she was the first woman to ever appear on the cover of Business Week, a self-made marketing and sales genius, and enjoyed a prolific career during a time when women didn't hold prestigious titles in the corporate world. Her name is Brownie Wise, and she was responsible for making Tupperware the company it is today. But you won't find Brownie's name anywhere on the Tupperware site. It's as if she never existed. Any mention of her was removed from company material in the late 50s, when she was fired by the company's owner, Earl Tupper. Her story is, at least to me, one of the biggest business travesties of justice. I admire her more than Martha Stewart or any other famous modern businesswoman. Seriously, a movie should be made about Brownie's life and Tupperware's callousness exposed. Hollywood, are you listening?



Brownie was a southern gal and a divorced mother who could use her charm and personality to persuade anyone to do anything that she wanted - a quality of a good salesperson. She initially held several jobs including writing and secretarial work, but she excelled at direct selling for the Stanley Home Products, a company that made brushes and home cleaning items. She quickly became one of Stanley's top salespersons.

Tupperware had just hit the market after World War II, but sales were lukewarm. One day Brownie was in a store and checking out a Tupperware container and decided that they, too, should be sold out of homes so that the "burping" lid could be demonstrated in person.

Brownie and her son moved to Florida where she started a company called Tupperware Patio Parties. When Earl Tupper, Tupperware's owner and CEO found out about her success, he called her in to learn more about her selling tactics. It wasn't long before Brownie became Tupperware's VP, and the products were sold exclusively through home parties.



The Tupperware home party - which became a huge trend in the 1950s - was very popular with housewives who wanted to earn a little extra income and have some sort of a life outside of marriage and tending to the home. Brownie played on the 1950s fantasies by marketing Tupperware as a way to make food preparation cleaner and faster. Tupperware also mapped out for new dealers how many parties one would have to hold to obtain a new television set or carpet.



Brownie also knew the importance of rewarding and motivating her salesforce. She was responsible for creating the "Jubilee", an annual four day meeting for all salespeople held in Florida. The Jubilee was one big party, with fashion shows and prizes such as cars and trips being handed out anonymously by a "Jubilee Fairy" to unsuspecting employees. Video clips from Jubilees can be seen here.

As the American Experience (who showed a documentary on Brownie in 2002) states, "Wise knew how to inspire her managers and dealers to work harder -- and to believe in themselves. She was a good -- if sentimental -- writer, and an excellent speaker. She offered women the opportunity to earn extra money, to travel, and to be part of an organization that pulled out the stops and did everything first class. She recognized women who got very little recognition elsewhere in their lives, bestowing upon them trophies, luxury goods and applause. And she taught others in the company how to do the same."

Brownie soon became extremely popular with the media - while the grumpy Earl Tupper hated the attention, the charismatic Brownie lapped it up. She appeared on talk shows and in magazines. When the press implied that Brownie was solely responsible for Tupperware's success, Earl Tupper grew jealous and infuriated. He and Brownie began to disagree on business matters. Despite the fact that Tupperware by this point was selling so many products their manufacturing plant in New England couldn't keep up, he fired Brownie. She held no company stock and was given a one-year salary as severance. Every reference to her in company literature was removed.

Brownie tried to start a makeup company with little success. She died in Florida at the age of 79.

Such an unfit and unfair ending for a woman who made Tupperware a recognizable and household name. Make me proud - the next time you use a Tupperware product, take a few seconds to think of Brownie Wise.

8 comments:

Barbara said...

Yeah, she got shafted big time. Men ruled the world and Earl Tupper's jealousy knew no boundaries. She was really something, and she doesn't get the attention she deserved. They did do a wonderful TV program on her once - that's where I first heard about her. Nice post!!
__
Barbara
http://ifididnthaveasenseofhumor.blogspot.com

Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

I saw that American Experience episode about her. She truly was one of a kind. It's a shame that Tupperware screwed her over like they did.

Pam@GoRetro said...

Yeah, the PBS documentary on her was superb. When it was over my first thought was "Damn! Someone needs to make a movie about her." So unfair.

Richard @ The Bewildered Brit said...

Wow that's fascinating! I think I added the PBS documentary to my netflix list, but it's been languishing. I'll bump it up! :)

Danielle Stevens said...

Thank you for putting up this information. Very detailed and so interesting to read as knew no history of Tupperware and was looking on Wikipedia to even remotely help give me an insight. But thank you for showing passion in your post also, i feel terrible to have missed out on the exciting years long ago. I was born in the 80's and history is never taken seriously anymore. Sadly I am aware: when a person nowadays signs up to become a demonstrator, there is almost no mention about any of the early Tupperware history and it's rather a disappointment to note that several parties i have attended did not mention anything historical or not with this much detail in it, I think some people are more interested in selling products, getting orders and leaving, it's no longer a "party" anymore, but a demo on how to hold products in the air and pass it around and talk more about booking parties to fulfil quota or sign up for joining the co as an independant demonstrator. Brownie Wise would have been truly remarkable and someone I will defintely talk about with others, particularly if they were to consider joining the company. I think a movie about Wise would be great, maybe new dealers could watch some historical movie and really gain some understanding about what is behind the product they are selling. A lot of the new products have a more modern way of sealing airtight, and most containers and lids are harder than they used to be. My mother and I grew up with Tupperware in our family kitchen, but only now do I know about the great people behind it. Thanks for sharing with us Pam.

Pam@GoRetro said...

Thanks for your comments, Danielle. It's really great to hear that someone so young has an appreciation for history and historical pop culture! It is very unfair and strange to me that Tupperware's site has NO mention of Brownie anywhere - I have thought of writing them and complaining. If PBS ever reairs the American Experience documentary on Brownie and Tupperware, I highly recommend watching it - there was way more than I could cover in a blog post.

Suzzy Canny said...

Hi Pam,
I am currently writing a book about a black child whose mother is a Tupperware consultant in 1953. The book Tupperware Promise of Plastic in 1950’s America by Alison J. Clarke has a fascinating section telling of Brownie Wise visiting black collages and recruiting young women to be part of the work force, page 126. I love this about Tupperware and it came straight from her open arms policy for women of all cultures. I believe that Tupperware today still carries on her legacy. They do have reference to her on the web, though not much.

I recently joined the sales force myself after studying the company for a very long time. There is something wonderful about Tupperware today that was only budding in her day. I talk about Brownie Wise as my reason for being in Tupperware quite often while at meetings and training. As chance would have it, I joined the franchise formerly owned by both mother and daughter, interviewed on the PBS show. I cannot remember their names right now (the daughter didn’t want to sing the Tupperware song at the end.) The mother was a speaker at the very first training that I attended. I sat there and cried for all she and her husband (the fireman/Tupperware) have done to help people grow their business all over the world. Brownie Wise was her first teacher in Tupperware.

One of my goals of my book is to bring forward forgotten inspiring people, who have been virtually ‘wiped out’ of our history. Janet Collins the first Negro prima ballerina of the New York Metropolitan Opera, 1953 is also a character in my book. I find it fascinating to discover a “bite” in my research of an era and follow it down to an interesting story lost to most.

Thanks so much for your blog about Brownie Wise. I’m so happy for the internet. By the way, in the book I mentioned above there is a chapter on The Recruitment of Brownie Wise page 95 that might interest you. However, you may have already read it. I greatly appreciate your work.
Sincerely,
Suzzy Canny

Pam@GoRetro said...

Thanks, Suzzy, for your comments and your tip about the Tupperware book--I'll definitely look it up. As far as your own book, it sounds fascinating, and I had no idea that Brownie was that ahead of her time. I hope when it's published you'll visit again to let me know.

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