50 Reasons to Subscribe to mental_floss (#45, Gary Larson)

Gary Larson is a huge hero of mine. We begged and begged his handlers to ask him to draw a mental_floss cover for us, and though he refused, the Far Works group agreed to let us run a bio on him, and they were happy to fact check it for us. (Apparently, most of the other major bios on him on the web are filled with inaccuracies, including the piece I really loved from salon.) In any case, I figured there'd be a few of you out there who might enjoy this delicious work by Kelly Ferguson. Just in case you're unsure whether to read on, though, I've attached one of the two sidebars from the text here...


SIDEBAR 1: My Bologna Has a First Name
Picture 2.png Believe it or not, the Dayton Daily News has managed to switch the captions for "The Far Side" and "Dennis the Menace"—TWICE. In the more hilarious mix-up, both cartoons featured "kids" complaining about their food, but— because of the typo — "The Far Side" panel featured a young snake griping to his parents with the line: "Lucky thing I learned to make peanut butter samwiches or we woulda starved to death by now." Meanwhile, Dennis complained, "Oh, brother! ... Not hamsters again!" Larson was the first to note that both cartoons were vastly improved.

Gary Larson's full story, after the break.

From the boneless chicken farm to the poodles of the Serengeti, no one does comics like Gary Larson. So, strap on your lab coat, tease that beehive hairdo, and tape up those thick glasses—we're about to probe the warped mind of one of America's finest cartoonists.From the beginning, Gary Larson's "The Far Side®" inspired both great loyalty and great derision. While devoted fans wallpapered their workplaces with the comic, others penned angry letters decrying its "demented" humor. Larson, meanwhile, always seemed a bit baffled by the controversy, maintaining it was "just a cartoon." But whether you loved it, hated it, or just didn't get it, you have to admit: "The Far Side" was a place only Larson could have gone.

From the Primordial Suburban Ooze
As a kid growing up in Tacoma, Wash., Gary Larson never dreamed that a knack for doodling amoebas would one day score him a place in history. After all, he was merely a simple life form, born into a working-class family. His father, Vern, worked as a car salesman, and his mother, Doris, was a secretary—but both moonlighted as the Best Parents Ever. From an early age, Gary spent a lot of time studying nature, reading science books, and drawing dinosaurs and whales. Fortunately, his folks kept their son's crayon caddy well stocked. And when Larson wanted a pet snake instead of a beagle? Well, that was OK, too.

All evidence points to a childhood of nerdy bliss, but many of Larson's cartoons have caused people to think, "That boy ain't right." So what about the creatures that go bump in the night? If fans want to credit someone for tweaking the artist's brain, thanks go to Larson's older brother, Dan. Knowing Gary had a crippling fear of monsters under the bed, Dan was the kind of brother who hid in Gary's closet for hours, just waiting for the golden opportunity to scare his sibling sick. Indeed, Larson would later claim that Dan's continuous series of pranks contributed to his "unusual" world perspective.

Of course, Larson also acknowledges Dan as having inspired his wacky investigative spirit and love for science. Growing up, the brothers used the family basement to build elaborate terrariums for all the animals they caught around Puget Sound. They even took over one of the rooms and turned it into a miniature desert ecosystem. Instead of freaking out, however, Mr. and Mrs. Larson reportedly invited the neighbors to join them in gawking.

In 1968, Larson left his terrariums behind and headed to Washington State University. To nobody's surprise, he started out as a biology major, but then switched to communications because he "didn't know what you did with a biology degree." At the time, he wanted to bring humor to the world of advertising—an idea he later regretted. When graduation rolled around in 1972, Larson rejected the briefcase and tie, opting instead to follow the well-blazed trail of disenchanted youth. In other words, he played guitar and banjo in a duo called Tom & Gary and worked at a retail music shop.

From High Fidelity to High Finance
Larson's transformation from music store clerk to internationally famous cartoonist follows a sequence of random decisions, sporadic efforts, and lucky breaks. At least, that's how Larson tells it. Ask the newspaper editors who first discovered Larson, and you're more likely to hear a tale about finally finding cartoon work that stood out from the drudgery of "Mary Worth."

Either way, the story of "The Far Side" begins in 1976. One day, after a long afternoon of hawking instruments, Larson realized just how much he hated his job, so he took a weekend off to "find himself." After wracking his brain for 48 hours straight, he entered that special mental zone that exists somewhere between breakdown and epiphany. And in that zone, Larson drew six single-panel cartoons.

Fortunately, the reticent Larson mustered up enough pluck to submit them to a few area newspapers. Not only was he able to sell them (with ease) to a regional science magazine called Pacific Search, he also earned a quick 90 bucks in the process. Suddenly, the lightbulb dinged: Maybe it was possible to make a living doing something he actually enjoyed! And just like that, Larson quit his job, moved back home, and began drawing full time. (Thanks again, Vern and Doris.)

Pretty soon, he was raking in the dough—$5 a week—from a Tacoma suburb paper called The Summer News Review. But things changed in 1979, after a reporter he'd met convinced him to approach The Seattle Times. To Larson's astonishment, they bit, and he soon began earning a whopping $15 a week for a quirky cartoon he called "Nature's Way."
In "Nature's Way," the basics of Larson's work emerged. He had his cast of characters (the mad scientists, the aliens, and the bovines), and he had a point to his punch lines. Larson always derived great joy from humbling Homo sapiens, and he reveled in reminding audiences that we're just another species. One cartoon, for instance, simply showed a rabbit wearing a human foot on a necklace for good luck.

Humor like this, while becoming Larson's trademark, also made "Nature's Way" a quick source of controversy. Strangely, the cartoon ran adjacent to the paper's "Junior Jumble," a puzzle aimed at children. Undoubtedly, when kids came to their parents with questions like, "Why do spider mommies eat their babies?" some parents weren't thrilled, and angry letters ensued.

A few disgruntled readers aside, Larson enjoyed moderate success. Still, full-time drawing hadn't translated into full-time cash, and in 1979, he decided to embark on a cartoon job quest in San Francisco. Mustering up his nerve, he squared his round shoulders, pushed his glasses up his nose, and stalwartly puttered south in his Plymouth Duster.
Larson had a list of papers to target in the area, but after getting lost a few times, he found himself on Market Street, home of The San Francisco Chronicle. He didn't have an appointment, but he went ahead and left his portfolio with the secretary, who was less than encouraging. The thing is, Larson hadn't thought to bring multiple copies of said portfolio, so The Chronicle shaped up to be his one lottery ticket to cartoon success.
Several days later, the prospects weren't looking good. Larson had heard nothing, and he felt like he was irritating the secretary with his calls. But, just as his Rice-a-Roni stash was running low, he got a call from the paper's editor. He told Larson he was sick—but in a good way. Then he offered him a spot in the paper and worked out a syndication deal to boot.

It was a cartoonist's equivalent of Charlie Brown making contact with the football.

Editors renamed Larson's comic "The Far Side," and the panel started running in 30 papers nationwide. Ironically, just days after Larson received the news from The Chronicle, he returned to Seattle to find a letter from The Seattle Times saying they were dropping him from the paper.

SIDEBAR: Tramp in the Midst
While Gary Larson wasn't exactly a stranger to controversy, one of his greatest brouhahas concerned a cartoon that parodied Jane Goodall. The panel in question shows one chimpanzee picking a blond hair off of another, with a caption that reads: "Conducting a little more "˜research' with that Jane Goodall tramp?" In response, the director of the Jane Goodall Institute wrote an indignant letter filled with statements such as, "To refer to Dr. Goodall as a tramp is inexcusable—even by a self described "˜loony' such as Larson." The bad vibes continued until it was discovered that a certain primatologist thought the cartoon was hilarious—namely, Jane Goodall. Soon, Larson and Goodall were seen fondly picking nits off of one another's backs. Larson went on a safari trip with Goodall to the famed Gombe National Park in Tanzania, and Goodall wrote an introduction to one of Larson's books. In fact, Larson ultimately allowed the cartoon to appear on T-shirts, the sales of which have been used to raise money for the Jane Goodall Institute.

Survival of The Fittest
While Larson eventually became the page-a-day-calendar king, success wasn't instantaneous. After all, it took time for audiences raised on "Marmaduke" to appreciate a world where squids say the darnedest things. Not everyone related to cartoon panels where the end of the world is nigh, people do aerobics in hell, and there are definitely, always, monsters in every closet.

Interestingly, while Larson's "sick" humor riled, what really worked the public into a lather was when they didn't get the joke. Lightning rod in point: a seemingly innocuous 1982 edition of "The Far Side" that featured a cow standing behind an assortment of amorphous objects on a table. The caption: "Cow tools." Larson's intent was to parody the tools used by early man, and more specifically, how even archaeologists are often baffled by their

Admittedly, the cartoon was a bit esoteric. But was it worth a national outcry? Apparently so. For reasons unknown, a population comfortable with being baffled by "Hi and Lois" day after day just couldn't handle a tool-wielding cow. Letters poured in from readers across the country, reporters and radio stations called with inquiries, and newspaper columnists had a field day.

The media barrage overwhelmed Larson, who, after all, had only gotten into this line of work to escape a dead-end retail job. Now, here he was, faced yet again with cranky customers. All the hoopla made him cringe with embarrassment, and he became convinced "The Far Side" would be canned. Yet, as mail continued to deluge his desk, he came upon a realization: People cared. Actually, lots of people cared. If this many readers felt the need to write, maybe he didn't just have a job; he had a career.
Larson was right. "The Far Side" contingency grew, and by 1983, the panel appeared in 80 papers nationwide. By 1985, it was in 200. Before all was said and done, the cartoon would run in 1,900 newspapers and be translated into 17 languages—lest we forget the book series, the calendars, the animated films, and the greeting cards.

Lab Partners
While denouncers found "The Far Side" base, devotees (especially scientists and researchers) loved its highbrow humor. After all, getting a Larson joke sometimes required knowledge of praying mantis mating habits, or a basic understanding of evolutionary theory. And when Larson made heroes out of ichthyologists and found humor in the antics of dung beetles? Well, it sent the white coats into fits of egghead bliss. They gleefully snorted and wheezed, smothering their office doors and metal file cabinets, one panel at a time.

Of course, the same fan base that loved Larson for his scientific accuracy also felt the need to point out his occasional blooper—like when he featured a male mosquito coming home from work (it's the female who does the biting) or when he committed the zoological faux pas of commingling polar bears and penguins (they live on separate poles). According to interviews with Larson, these sorts of errors drove him crazy. A perfectionist—and a scientist—by nature, he did not take his gaffes lightly.
Whether or not Larson has ever forgiven himself, the scientists haven't been able to stay mad at him for long. In fact, one time, out of love, they turned Larson's comedic fiction into scientific fact. While it's common knowledge that dinosaurs and cavemen never co-existed, Larson blatantly disregarded this fact in a cartoon that showed a primitive hominid pointing to a picture of the spiky tail of a Stegosaurus. In it, the caveman explains, "Now this end is called the thagomizer ... after the late Thag Simmons." Well, these days, paleontologists actually recognize that "spiky thingy" as a Thagomizer.
In 1989, scientists decided to honor Larson in an even more special way. The Committee on Evolutionary Biology at The University of Chicago named a newly discovered species after him—the Strigiphilus garylarsoni, a louse found only on owls. Later, Larson's name was also given to a butterfly—the Serratoterga larsoni, a native of the Ecuadorian rain forest. Quite the hallmark of success for a man who once described entomology as the "fantasy road not taken."


While we might prefer to believe that Gary Larson exists for the sole purpose of drawing us cartoons, he has decided otherwise. In 1988, he went on sabbatical for 14 months, then put the pen down at the beginning of 1995. And because it's been over a decade now, we might have to consider that he really means it this time. Irritatingly, he seems perfectly content enjoying his royalties, rather than sitting at his desk six days a week in a panic, trying to finish his next panel before the Federal Express truck arrives.
"The Far Side" withdrawal is undoubtedly a bummer, but admittedly, it would have been more depressing to watch the cartoon devolve into the realm of the "unfunnies," or as Larson termed it, the "Graveyard of Mediocre Cartoons." Larson felt he was starting to repeat himself and wanted to quit while he thought the panel held up. For this, we might consider forgiving him for retiring wealthy at the age of 44.

These days, Larson enjoys the spoils of his success with his wife, anthropologist Toni Carmichael, while pursuing his love of jazz guitar. There are rumors he moonlights as a wedding crasher—only, in true nerd fashion, he doesn't pick up bridesmaids but jams with the band. On a tragic note, his brother Dan died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 46. That is, unless he's just lying in the dirt, waiting to grab his little brother's ankle.
Since his retirement, Larson has tossed us a few crumbs. In 1998, he published There's a Hair in My Dirt!: A Worm's Story, a naturalist morality tale told in an illustrated book. And in 2003, he released The Complete Far Side, a massive collection of his work containing all 4,337 of his panels. To promote the effort, Larson also gave a few promotional interviews, and pointed out that the two-volume set doubles neatly as a murder weapon. But other than that, he's managed to keep out of the public eye. Meanwhile, we imagine his fans will simply have to wait, hoping one day Larson will emerge from retirement—just long enough to draw a python that strangles "The Family Circus."

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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

John Ueland
How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire
John Ueland
John Ueland

On an unseasonably warm day in April 1954, hundreds of women in cowboy hats gathered outside Tupperware’s Florida headquarters to dig for buried treasure. There, in a nearby swampy area dubbed the “Forest of Spades,” 600 shovels stood at the ready. The excitement was palpable. At the appointed signal, the women raced for the roped-off soil, grabbed shovels, and began to hunt frantically for loot.

It was the pinnacle of the inaugural Tupperware Jubilee, a five-day, gold-rush-themed affair celebrating all things Tupperware. No expense was spared: To give the event a Western feel, frontier-style buildings with false fronts had been erected and bulls and horses were trucked in. The women, and a smattering of men, had traveled from all across the country to participate. A collection of Tupperware dealers, distributors, and sales managers, they made the pilgrimage for the motivational speeches, sales instruction, and especially for the bizarre bonding rituals.

For five hours that day, they prospected for mink stoles and freezer units, gold watches and diamond rings. One of them, Fay Maccalupo of Buffalo, New York, dug up a toy car. When she saw the real Ford it represented, she planted her face against the hood and began to weep, repeating, “I love everybody.” Four women fainted and had to be revived with smelling salts. It was understandable, considering that the total cash value of all the prizes buried in the Florida dirt was $75,000.

Presiding over the treasure hunt was the general sales manager of the Tupperware Home Parties division, a 40-year-old woman named Brownie Wise. For hours, she cheered on the ladies from a loudspeaker with an air of royalty. As she watched them hop on shovels and unearth the rewards of their labors, she couldn’t help but feel proud. Wise took satisfaction in seeing her hard work pay off—once again. The jubilee, which she had organized, had all the pizzazz and spirit expected of an official Tupperware event. The media agreed: Network news was there to cover it, and Life magazine ran a photo essay highlighting the excitement and glamour.

Clearly, there’s more to Tupperware than leftovers. The story of the ubiquitous plastic container is a story of innovation and reinvention: how a new kind of plastic, made from an industrial waste material, ended up a symbol of female empowerment. The product ushered women into the workforce, encouraging them to make their own money, better their families, and win accolades and prizes without fear of being branded that 1950s anathema, “the career woman.”

Digging in the dirt for a gold watch may not mesh with today’s concept of a successful working woman, but at the time, the near-religious fervor seen at the jubilees and other Tupperware gatherings demonstrated just how ground-breaking the company’s sales plan was—the product became a multimillion dollar success not by exploiting women, but by embracing and boosting them. All of this was because of Brownie Wise. The story of Tupperware is her story.

Brownie Wise, named for her big, brown eyes, was born in rural Georgia. Her parents divorced when she was young, and as a teen she traveled with her mother, who organized union rallies. While touring the Deep South, Brownie started giving speeches at her mother’s rallies and soon proved to be a gifted and motivating orator. She “awed people,” writes Bob Kealing in his biography Tupperware Unsealed. “[They] were surprised that someone so young could deliver a speech like a pastor.”

Wise was married briefly, but by 27, she was a divorced single mom in suburban Detroit. During World War II, she worked as a secretary at Bendix Aviation, a company that made parts for navy torpedo planes. It was a decent but unfulfilling job. On the side, Wise penned an advice column for the Detroit News, writing under the alter ego “Hibiscus.” A housewife who led an idyllic life with her child and husband in a home called “Lovehaven,” Hibiscus had everything Wise did not. But what Wise did possess was an endless fountain of determination. As she wrote in a journal at that time, “I wanted to be a successful human being.”

It all started with a bad door-to-door salesman. When a Stanley Home Products salesman knocked on her door and proceeded to deliver a terrible sales pitch for cleaning supplies, Wise scoffed that she could do better. At the time, Stanley was experimenting with a peculiar sales model: home parties. A New Hampshire mop salesman had watched his numbers fly through the roof after he invited a bunch of women over for a party that included a mop demonstration. The company encouraged other salesmen to try the strategy, but many of them delegated the party-hosting to their wives. Thinking it’d be a fun job on the side, Wise started selling Stanley products at parties too. Before long, she was making enough money to quit her job at Bendix.

Wise was blessed with the gift of gab, and her special blend of folksy real talk and motherly encouragement helped her rise through Stanley’s ranks. Soon she was in management and hoping to ascend even higher. But those illusions were quashed at a meeting with Stanley head Frank Beveridge, who told Wise she’d never become an executive. Its halls were “no place for a woman,” he said. Wise returned home furious. The rejection lit a fire in her—she vowed that someday, somehow, she would prove Beveridge wrong.

She didn’t know that the key to fulfilling this dream would be in plastic food-storage containers. Wise first glimpsed Tupperware at a sales meeting. One of her coworkers had seen the products gathering dust in a department store and decided to bring them in. At first, Wise didn’t think they were anything special. But when she accidentally knocked a Tupperware bowl off the table, she realized its full potential: Instead of breaking, it bounced.

It seemed like magic. Tupperware was unlike any home product she’d seen before. It was attractive, coming in pastel colors and flexible shapes, almost like art. More importantly, it was functional—no other competing product even came close. Convinced of its potential, Wise traded in her Stanley brooms in 1949 and started throwing parties to sell Tupperware. What she didn’t intend, exactly, was to kindle a revolution.


The most amazing thing about Tupperware wasn’t that it extended the life of leftovers and a family’s budget, although it did both remarkably well. It was, above all, a career maker. When women came to one of Wise’s parties, they were more than just convinced to buy the product— Wise was such a charming host that she persuaded many buyers to also become Tupperware salespeople. The more parties Wise hosted, the more tricks she learned to convert women into Tupperware faithful. Putting people on waiting lists, for instance, made them more eager to buy, so she signed them up regardless of whether the product was available. She also discovered that throwing containers full of liquid across the room made customers reach straight for their checkbooks. Amassing more and more saleswomen, Wise encouraged her followers to do the same. By October 1949, she had 19 recruits, enough to move her supplies out of her house and into a larger warehouse. Driven by the idea of making money simply by throwing parties for friends and neighbors, the women in Wise’s workforce ballooned in number. Soon, other Tupperware parties were taking place across the country. Wise’s team in Detroit was selling more Tupperware than most department stores. This soon attracted the attention of the no-nonsense founder of the Tupperware Corporation, Earl Silas Tupper.

Tupperware, true to its name, was Tupper’s masterpiece, and he was counting on it to make his dreams come true. Having grown up in a poor Massachusetts farm family, he had vowed to make a million dollars by the time he was 30. He hadn’t. He did have a host of esoteric inventions—among them, a fish-powered boat and no-drip ice cream cone—under his belt. But with a wife and family to support, he’d concentrated on a practical career in plastics, first at DuPont and then at a company of his own, which made parts for Jeeps and gas masks during World War II. When the war ended, Tupper decided to buy cheap surpluses left over from wartime manufacturing. He figured he’d be able to do something with them.

That’s how he ended up with a glob of greasy black polyethylene, a smelly waste product left behind when metal is created from ore. Tupper took it and, after months of trial and error, wrangled the slag into submission, creating a light-weight plastic that refused to break. Tupper dubbed it “Poly-T,” and, taking inspiration from the way paint cans sealed, created a flexible container with a noiseless lid that snapped on. He called the box Tupperware. He patented the seal in 1949 and rolled out 14 products he called the “Millionaire Line.” The only problem? He couldn’t get anyone to buy it.

At least not until Wise came along. Her sales record was remarkable—in 1949, she’d rung up $150,000 in orders and was offered a promotion: distribution rights to the entire state of Florida. In the spring of 1950, she moved south with her son, Jerry, and her mother. She found a store space, and by May she’d opened her business and was scouting for new salespeople.

Still, not everything was going smoothly. Along with disputes over turf with other distributors, she was constantly contending with botched orders, shipping delays, and product shortages. In March of 1951, Wise had had enough. She called Tupper in a fury. It was the first time they’d spoken, but she was too livid for niceties; she ripped into him immediately. This was hurting not just her bottom line, but also his. Did he not understand how crucial it was that the problems be fixed immediately? Tupper assured her that he’d fix any issues and then asked a favor: He wanted to hear her sales secrets.

The next month, the two met at a conference on Long Island and Wise explained her selling technique. It was pointless, she explained, to think that people would see Tupperware on store shelves or in catalogs and want to buy it. Instead, people had to touch it, squeeze it, drop it, seal it. They had to experience Tupperware from a trusted friend or neighbor. She gave a bold prescription for saving Tupper’s business: Ditch department stores altogether and focus entirely on throwing home parties.

Tupper took the advice to heart. So much, in fact, that the day after their meeting, he created a new division just for home parties and asked Wise to be the general manager. Wise had reached her goal: She had become an executive. It was a perfect fit, too. She had a stellar track record—she was selling more Tupperware than anyone anywhere—and Tupper was bowled over by her charm. “You talk a lot and everybody listens,” he said.

“She was the yin to Tupper’s yang,” Kealing writes. “Where he was fussy and reclusive, Wise lived to mingle with and inspire the dealer workforce.” They were a match made in sales heaven. Or so it seemed.


In 1952, the first full year of Wise’s watch, Tupperware sales rocketed. Wholesale orders exceeded $2 million. During the last half of the year, sales tripled. Tupperware parties did exactly what Wise promised they would, and she became the company’s shining star. That year, Tupper gave her a salary of $20,933.33, more than she had ever made. For her birthday in 1953, he presented her with a gold-dyed palomino horse. Even more remarkably, he gave her the freedom to do practically whatever she wanted. So Wise traveled the country recruiting, presiding over sales conferences, and announcing contests and doling out prizes for incentive—including, sometimes, her own clothes.

By the looks of it, most of Wise’s Tupperware recruits fit neatly into the stereotypical role of a proper housewife. But, in reality, they surreptitiously represented a new kind of female empowerment. During World War II, many women had no choice but to enter the workforce. At its end, many of them had no choice but to leave it. Suddenly, selling Tupperware at parties allowed women to straddle both worlds. They were employed, yet they didn’t appear to challenge their husbands' authority or the status quo. This pioneering entrepreneurial model allowed them to inhabit a workforce outside of the one the hustling salesman inhabited, and, in many cases, to do even better than he did. And that power relied specifically on a network of female friends and neighbors.

The parties weren’t just a way for women to keep occupied—it was a way they could contribute to their family’s bottom line. Most women who worked outside the home had low-paying jobs in fields like light manufacturing, retail, clerical work, and health and education. The money—committed dealers could bring in $100 or more per week—was a revelation. The opportunity for success was so great that the husbands of some Tupperware ladies left their own jobs to work with their wives.

Wise was something of an early Oprah, giving away fantastic prizes, operating in a grass-roots, word-of-mouth fashion and showing rather than telling other women how to succeed in the comfort of their own homes. The fact that she made many women understand the benefits of becoming salespeople, building the brand further, simply made her a fantastic executive.

Wise embraced the spirit of female entrepreneurship wholeheartedly. In her prime, she wrote a morale-boosting newsletter called Tupperware Sparks, published a primer called Tupperware Know-How, and had a 52-minute film, A Tupperware Home Party, made as a training tool. She even convinced Tupper to move the company headquarters to Florida. When Tupper bought property in Kissimmee, Wise turned it into a Mecca-like pilgrimage site for Tupperware devotees.

Part of the power of Wise’s sales technique, which at times seemed more faith than business, was that it gave the impression that the sky was the limit, and it relied on collective power. This wasn’t just the traditional salesperson’s dog-eat-dog world: Instead, the group was a “family” that helped one another climb to the top. Women who had previously only had their names in print upon birth or marriage were being recognized for their success, with their names, photographs, and accomplishments appearing in Wise’s newsletters. Along with making their own money, they received rewards—top distributors got cars—and the chance to collaborate with other women in a friendly but competitive environment. Wise increased the fervor with her annual jubilees, which had their own rituals, like candlelit graduation ceremonies and group sing-alongs featuring choruses of “I’ve got that Tupper feeling deep in my heart.”

“No woman got praised for scrubbing floors,” Elsie Mortland, who became Tupperware’s Home Kitchen Demonstrator, told Kealing in an interview in 2005. “But when they got praised for selling Tupperware, they had something to be proud of.”

Wise was the head of the household, and the Tupperware ladies all wanted to be a part of her extended family. Success was limited only by how hard a person was willing to work, a belief that Wise preached passionately. Unfortunately, she had been duped into thinking her boss shared that opinion.


As Wise became the face of Tupperware, sales and press continued to skyrocket. In 1954, she was the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week. But as glowing as the magazine’s profile was, it contained warning signs about the future of her partnership with Tupper. The piece credited Wise and her sales technique with Tupperware’s estimated $25 million in retail sales and seemed to downplay Tupper’s role as president of the company he had created.

Tupper had never craved the spotlight; in fact, he was known to use the back door of his office to avoid attracting attention. But he was keen to ensure that his product, not an employee, received the lion’s share of any attention. And somewhere along the way, Wise had started to upstage the plastic containers she helped make famous. After the Business Week article, Tupper wrote a note to Wise that contained a glimmer of the storm that was to come: “However, good executive as you are, I still like best the pictures ... with TUPPERWARE!”

The good press continued but, in 1955, after several powerful distributors left the company, sales began to lag. Hard times strained Wise and Tupper’s relationship. By 1956, angry letters were flying back and forth between them, and at one point, Tupper stopped taking Wise’s calls. Her complaints and frank criticisms, previously helpful, had become jabs he couldn’t endure. He also started to believe that she was costing him money, irked that she had her own side business selling self-help books at company events. More to the point, he started to suspect that if he tried selling the company—which he was planning to do—having a female executive would get in the way.

Finally, in 1958, Tupper flew to Florida and fired Wise. After a heated legal battle, she received only $30,000 as a settlement. She didn’t own her house and was ordered to vacate. She had no stocks in the company; she didn’t even own many of the clothes she wore. The man she’d helped make a millionaire didn’t seem to care: Tupper ordered her name expunged from the company history and buried the 600 remaining copies of her book in an unmarked pit behind Tupperware’s Florida headquarters. Later that year, he sold the company to Rexall Drug for $16 million, divorced his wife, and bought an island in Central America. He died in Costa Rica in 1983. Wise, on the other hand, tried starting new companies but never achieved the same success she had with Tupperware. She led a quiet life with her horses, pottery, and her son until she died at her home in Kissimmee in 1992.

Her influence, however, has not waned. Today, according to the PBS American Experience documentary Tupperware!, the product is sold in about 100 countries, while “every 2.5 seconds, a Tupperware party is held somewhere in the world.” In this respect, the Golden Age of Tupperware hasn’t ended so much as it has solidified. When was the last time you stored food in a plastic container with a sealing mechanism? Tupperware is so much a part of our food culture that we don’t even think about its continuing influence, and yet we still rely on it daily.

This story is one of reinvention too: a useless plastic reimagined into something needed, of food being stored in wholly new ways, of women emerging from their kitchens to showcase their worth and proclaim their identities, of sales techniques evolving to embrace the customer, and of the singular character of Brownie Wise, who changed what it meant to be a woman in the workforce. Because of that, as Houston Post writer Napoleon Hill wrote in 1956, “It has been estimated that Brownie Wise has helped more women to financial success than any other single living person.”

Early in Wise’s tenure at the company, Tupper presented her with a piece of the raw polyethylene he’d used to make Tupperware. She saw it as poetic proof of his vision: He had created something beautiful from this unappealing glob of plastic, using nothing but imagination and persistence. It was “the best sales story I have ever heard in all my life,” she wrote. She considered “Poly,” as Tupper called it, a prized possession and would have her women touch it for good luck, telling them, “Just get your fingers on it, wish for what you want. Know it’s going to come true, and then get out and work like everything ... and it will!”


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