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Embarrassing Moments in Engineering (and what they taught us)

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This article was written by Mark Fischetti and originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

Remember giving that long and tearful toast at your brother's wedding, only to find out later that you had a huge chunk of spinach stuck in your teeth? Or the time you shot that brilliant last-second 3-pointer into the other team's basket? Or what about when you built that giant highway bridge for the city and it suddenly collapsed one day? On second thought, that last one is its own special kind of embarrassing. And one for which you'd probably trade a million spinach-toothed moments. So take comfort in knowing that, if nothing else, your bad hair day didn't put anyone in danger or make the nightly news.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge is Falling Down
Tacoma, Washington, 1940

While buildings and bridges are made to bend in the wind, the engineers behind the Tacoma Narrows Bridge might have benefited from heeding a different aphorism: everything in moderation. Stretching 2,800 feet above the riverbed, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was (at the time) the third-longest suspension bridge in the world, behind the Golden Gate in San Francisco and the George Washington in New York City. Its sleek design incorporated a roadbed only 39 feet wide, making the bridge far more slender and light than its contemporaries. But it was also a lot more flexible.

The simple fact is that any structure built without enough "give" is more likely to break in a strong wind. There's no shortage of mathematical formulas for calculating how flexible a structure should be. But there was a problem.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was only one-third as stiff as common engineering rules dictated.

Even in modest winds, the roadway oscillated up and down several feet, quickly earning it the nickname Galloping Gertie.

Continue reading to see video of the collapse and learn about more engineering embarrassments.

While drivers found the undulations unsettling, the bridge seemed steady enough from the outset—at least to everyone except University of Washington engineering professor Bert Farquharson. Worried that it was far too flexible, Farquharson began studying the bridge in an attempt to uncover what sort of retrofits might improve its stability. As part of his investigation, he showed up at Tacoma Narrows on the morning of November 7, 1940, to film the movement of the bridge. His timing was eerily coincidental. As he was shooting, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge began heaving, and soon collapsed.

The Moral: It's OK to be a stiff. Materials like wood, metal, and concrete vibrate when they're struck—whether it's your fork hitting a wine glass (causing it to ring) or wind pushing across the roadbed of a bridge. If sustained, the vibrations can build to dangerous levels. It's like pushing someone on a swing; when they reach the back-most point in the oscillation, the same light push over and over will make the swing go higher and higher. You don't have to push harder each time; you just have to push repeatedly at the right moment. Similarly, if wind pushes a roadbed steadily for long enough, it can oscillate higher and higher, creating what's known as resonance.

The antidote is torsional rigidity, which is just a fancy way of saying a resistance to twisting. In the case of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the undulating roadbed caused alternating tension and slack in the support cables, creating a twisting motion. The action eventually became so violent that the cables snapped, and enormous sections of the bridge fell into the water below. To prevent this, Farquharson had suggested the addition of stiffeners along the roadbed. Indeed, had this retrofit been made, the collapse might have been avoided.

Citicorp Center's Close Call
New York City, 1978

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Talk about narrowly averting disaster. When the Citicorp Center in New York was completed in 1977, it added a dramatic, sloping peak to the city's skyline. But less than a year later, the building's chief engineer, William LeMessurier, helped it avoid destruction by razor-thin margins.

LeMessurier faced a unique situation when it came to designing the Citicorp Center. In the early 1970's, the banking behemoth was looking for a new headquarters and had its eye on a vibrant square block in midtown Manhattan. There was just one small problem: the historic St. Peter's church sat on the block's northwest corner. While the clergy wouldn't let Citicorp tear down the church, after a little negotiating, they did agree to let the bank use the airspace above it. This allowed the engineering team to form a novel architectural plan: build the 59-story rectangular tower atop four massive, nine-story-high pillars so that it actually hovered over the church. Here's a contemporary photo of the pillars, courtesy of Wikipedia:

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Having positioned the building on what essentially amounted to stilts, LeMessurier knew he would have to make the structure especially resistant to strong winds. To help stabilize it, he embedded special braces in the Center's frame every eight stories or so to prevent the skyscraper from bending too far. What's more, LeMessurier devised an additional (and unique) way to counter any swaying that might occur. At the base of the building's steeply angled roof, he placed a giant pendulum-like mechanism called a tuned mass damper—a 400-ton block of concrete resting on a film of oil and held in place by huge springs.

If winds rocked the tower left or right, the block would slip in the opposite direction, counteracting the sway. The skyscraper was the first in the United States to sport such a device.

When the Citicorp Center opened, all seemed well. But less than a year later, LeMessurier got a phone call from an engineering student in New Jersey claiming that the building's four columns (positioned at the center of the sides instead of at the corners to avoid the church) were improperly placed, making it susceptible to what sailors call quartering winds—winds that would hit the building across its vertical corners, pushing on two sides at once. LeMessurier assured him they were fine, but it prompted him to review details of the design for his own students at Harvard—and thankfully so.

That's when LeMessurier got some bad news. The skyscraper's builders broke it to him that they hadn't welded the wind braces' joints together, as LeMessurier had prescribed, but simply bolted them. This met code and saved a good deal of money, but it wouldn't allow the joints to hold in winds above 85 mph—like those that accompany, oh, say, a hurricane. True; hurricanes aren't exactly common in New York City, but LeMessurier wasn't going to take any chances.

During what had to be a rather humiliating meeting with Citicorp, LeMessurier informed the bank that it needed to make additional retrofits to the building. As not to scare the employees (or let the building's problems leak to the press), they launched a plan to make the adjustments in a more, shall we say, subtle fashion. An army of welders worked the graveyard shift seven days a week and bound two-inch-thick steel plates over all 200 joints.

The Moral: Own up to your mistakes. Roughly a month before the welding project was completed, weather forecasters predicted that Hurricane Ella was headed directly for the Big Apple. The welders tried frantically to finish the retrofits early, but ultimately, the bank had to go to city authorities and warn them of the possible catastrophe they were facing. Emergency officials secretly formed a massive evacuation plan for midtown and crossed their fingers. LeMessurier (and Manhattan) finally caught a break as Ella veered out to sea.

By the time the welders and carpenters finished, the building was one of the strongest in the country. Though justifiably annoyed, Citicorp executives commended LeMessurier for coming forward with his concerns, even though his initial work had met all code requirements. And fortunately for all the engineers involved, the entire fiasco was kept under wraps thanks to a newspaper strike that coincided with the events. Virtually no one knew about it for more than a decade, until LeMessurier released a report about the ordeal titled, "Project SERENE," an acronym for Special Engineering Review of Events Nobody Envisioned.

The Millennium Bridge's Not-So-Grand Opening
London, June 10, 2000

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The world might have avoided a Y2K disaster at the dawn of the new millennium, but it wasn't immune to the follies of bad engineering. On the morning of June 10, 2000, the Millennium Bridge in London opened with great fanfare. Only two days later, it closed with a sigh of relief from hundreds of nauseated pedestrians.

Intended as a high-profile commemoration of the 21st century, the Millennium footbridge was meant to convey a new, innovative spirit. It was given a prime location smack in the middle of downtown, connecting St. Paul's Cathedral on the north bank of the River Thames to the Tate Modern Gallery on the south. Its cutting-edge design included an aluminum deck supported from underneath by two Y-shaped frames, rather than the more common overhanging arches. The final product was sleek, futuristic—and a wee bit wobbly.

As with all bridges, the Millennium engineers designed the span to sway slightly in the wind so that it wouldn't snap. But even the light breeze blowing on the morning of June 10 was enough to make the $26 million bridge swing like a ride in a carnival funhouse. In an attempt to keep their balance, the thousands of inaugural pedestrians began to do what anybody on a rocking platform does: step in time with the rhythm of the swaying, shifting their weight from side to side to counter the motion. The result was something engineers call synchronized footfall. As more people moved in unison, more force was added to the lateral motion, and the rocking increased.

Eventually, the sway was so strong that it threatened to loft people overboard. Police quickly restricted access, and only two days later, city officials closed the bridge indefinitely.

The following year, at a cost of more than $7 million, the bridge's engineering firm and a New York-based contractor fixed the problem. Underneath the deck, they installed some 87 dampers—huge shock absorbers—to reduce the forces of synchronized footfall. The bridge reopened on January 30, 2002, but this time around, getting people to cross was going to take some convincing. City officials offered walkers free sandwiches, and even had a Southwick mayor and a London town crier dressed in Victorian garb lead the way. Still, just to be on the safe side, numerous British Coast Guard rescue vessels were placed downstream. Fortunately, the bridge proved rock solid.

The Moral: Beware of people. By the time it reopened, the Millennium Bridge (albeit inappropriately named by this point) was safe, but its engineers were roundly criticized for not having heeded the lesson of synchronized footfall. After all, even Napoleon's troops knew about its dangers. His armies always marched in unison, but whenever they came upon a footbridge, all the soldiers would alternate their stepping cadence precisely to keep the bridge from breaking.

If that weren't enough, the Millennium Bridge engineers had a much more recent call to warning. On May 24, 1987, a major "pedestrian jam" occurred on the Golden Gate Bridge, when more than 250,000 people swarmed up the ramps as part of the bridge's 50th anniversary celebration. The sheer weight of the crowd flattened the roadway (more than motor vehicles could have), putting enough slack in the suspension cables to allow the roadbed to swing. The pedestrians began stepping in time with the motion and the sway increased. Police managed to calmly dispurse the crowd, but the incident was an eye-opening reminder for engineers that even one of the most stable roadway bridges in the world isn't necessarily secure enough for people.

Kansai International Airport Learns to Sink or Swim
Osaka Bay, Japan; 1987 to present

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Never mind the two-dimensional cell phones and microscopic digital cameras. If you're talking mind-boggling Japanese inventions, think floating airport. In a country where open land is pretty hard to come by, the Japanese government commissioned the construction of an airport for the growing cities of Kobe and Osaka in the only available space around them: the clear, blue sea.

In 1987, builders started construction on a manmade island a mile and a half offshore in Osaka Bay. To build the 2.5 mile-long, half-mile-wide piece of land, they erected a giant box of rock and concrete in the water and filled it with even more rock, gravel, and sand. The idea was simple, but the process of carrying it out was anything but. It took three years, 10,000 workers and 80 barges to level two mountains and shuttle the material to sea before the box was filled.

Geologists knew the soft clay seabed would compress from the weight of the "island," but they allowed for settlement and filled the box high enough above water to negate the effect. Unfortunately, their calculations were way off.

What they didn't anticipate was the amount of water in the clay bed that would ooze out, as if seeping from a sponge. By 1990, the island had already sunk 27 feet. In an attempt to counter that sinking feeling (and heighten the island surface), workers leveled a third mountain to come up with the amount of earth needed.

Complicating matters even more were the builders' plans to erect a mile-long terminal alongside the runway. Engineers knew that if the ends or middle of the span sank at different rates, it would tear the terminal apart. To compensate for the varying rates of sinkage, they decided to rest the terminal's glass sides on 900 cement columns sitting atop two foundation walls. As parts of the walls sank, maintenance crews could jack up certain columns, slip a hefty steel plate beneath them, and level out the terminal as needed.

The Moral: Make sure to overbudget. Thanks largely to the steel-plate system, the Kansai International Airport has proved shockingly stable. Since opening in 1994, the single-terminal marvel has survived the 1995 Kobe earthquake (centered only 18 miles away) and a 1998 typhoon packing 200-mph winds.

Nevertheless, the island continues to sink about six inches per year, which means engineers are still stuffing plates beneath columns. All in all, it's a pricey project. Kansai Airport cost more than $15 billion (almost $5 billion over budget) and is deeply in debt, losing more than $500 million a year in interest payments alone. Some airlines won't use the facility because of high landing fees, and air traffic remains below profitable levels. Amazingly, the regional government is already busy building another nearby island of even larger proportions to support a second runway for the airport.

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

AP

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.

AP

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.

Alamy

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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Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images
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The Confederacy's Plan to Conquer Latin America
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Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Northerners and Southerners alike wanted the federal government to take a more aggressive approach toward acquiring new territory. In fact, some private citizens, known as filibusters, took matters into their own hands. They raised small armies illegally; ventured into Mexico, Cuba, and South America; and attempted to seize control of the lands. One particularly successful filibuster, William Walker, actually made himself president of Nicaragua and ruled from 1856 to 1857.

For the most part, these filibusters were just men in search of adventure. Others, however, were Southern imperialists who wanted to conquer new territories in the tropics. Abolitionist factions in the North greatly opposed their efforts, and the debate over Southern expansion only increased tensions in a divided nation. As the country drifted into war, U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky warned that "the Southern states cannot afford to be shut off from all possibility of expansion towards the tropics by the hostile action of the federal government."

But Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 put an end to the argument. The anti-slavery president refused to compromise on the issue, and war broke out in April 1861.

CONFEDERATE COLONIES, SOUTH OF THE BORDER

Winning the war was clearly a higher priority for the Confederacy than conquering Latin America, but growth was certainly on the post-war agenda. The Confederate constitution included the right to expand, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis filled his cabinet with men who thought similarly. He even hinted that the slave trade could be revived in "new acquisitions to be made south of the Rio Grande."

During the Civil War, Confederate agents attempted to destabilize Mexico so that its territories would be easy to snatch up after the war. One rebel emissary to Mexico City, John T. Pickett, secretly fomented rebellion in several Mexican provinces with an eye to "the permanent possession of that beautiful country." Pickett's mission ended in failure in 1861, but fate dealt the South a better hand in 1863. French Emperor Napoleon III seized Mexico, and the move provided the South with a perfect excuse to "liberate" the country after the Civil War.

Of course, Mexico was just part of the pie that the South hoped to inherit. Confederate leaders also had their eyes squarely on Brazil—a country of 3 million square miles and more than 8 million people. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Matthew Maury, one of the forces behind the U.S. Naval Academy, dispatched two Navy officers to the Amazon basin, ostensibly to map the river for shipping. Instead, they were secretly plotting domination and collecting data about separatist movements in the region. When the South lost the war, Maury refused to abandon his plans. He helped up to 20,000 ex-rebels flee to Brazil, where they established the Confederate colonies of New Texas and Americana. To this day, hundreds of descendants of the Confederados still gather outside Americana to celebrate their shared heritage of rocking chairs and sweet potato pie. In a strange way, a part of the Old South still survives—thousands of miles below the U.S. border.

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