10 Coins That Aren't Boring

by David A. Norris

Nerdy reputation or not, coin collecting (otherwise known as numismatics) has been a hobby since the days of ancient Rome. If you're not a member of the enthusiast crowd, though, knowing a thing or two about the following faves just might be enough to help you rub elbows with true aficionados.

1. The Stupidest Coin the Government Ever Made: The Racketeer Nickel

In 1883, the United States issued a newly designed five-cent piece called the "V nickel." The coin got its name because the value was indicated on the back simply with the Roman numeral "˜V,' sans the word "cents." After all, it was obvious it was a nickel, right? Apparently not. Turns out, the V nickel was the same size as a U.S. $5 gold piece, and both coins featured a bust of Lady Liberty on the front.

It wasn't long before light bulbs started going off over the heads of con men all across America. Within weeks of the V's debut, crooks were gold-plating the nickels and palming them off as $5 gold pieces. Meanwhile, government officials scoffed at the notion that anyone would fall for such an obvious hoax. Unfortunately, they were wrong again. Despite the gold-plated nickels not looking like $5 coins and not being nearly as heavy, most people didn't notice, because the gold coins were rarely used in everyday purchases.

By April 1883, "gilded nickels" were both a national joke and a growing concern for commerce and law enforcement. The U.S. Secret Service made arrests in 10 states related to the scam. In one raid, they seized a "half bushel" of coins waiting to be plated. But all good things come to an end, and con artists had a hard time getting enough new nickels to keep the racket going. Finally, embarrassed officials put an end to the scam by halting production of the nickels until new dies were prepared. This time, the redesigned backs read "V cents." Today, the V nickel remains a favorite among coin collectors.

2. The Coin You Carry in Bundles: The Kissi Penny

Money hasn't always been strictly confined to coins and bills. In Biblical times, for example, people used sheep and cattle as currency. Of course, because deceased livestock don't paste that well into scrapbooks, numismatists have to draw the line somewhere. And that's where the phrase "odd and curious money" comes in. It's a numismatist category used to classify various pre-cash societies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.

One widely collected type of odd and curious money is an iron currency from West Africa known as the Kissi penny or Kilindi. Named for the Kissi people living in and around Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, the pennies are actually rods of twisted iron roughly 1 foot long. Each has a double-pointed tip at one end and a leaf-like piece at the other—distinctive marks that kept "clippers" from being able to whittle away the metal and pawn off the cut coin as whole. The exact value of the Kissi penny is not known, but it wasn't much. Large purchases were made by binding Kissi pennies into bundles of 20 to 100. Historians do know, however, that Kissi pennies weren't taken lightly. They were said to possess a soul, and if one was broken, it was repaired by a blacksmith under the guidance of a local priest.

3. The Coin Your Mom Doesn't Want You to Pick Up: Leper Colony Coins

Leprosy, or Hansen's disease, was once among the most feared diseases in the world.  Mistakenly believed to be highly contagious, it was a disfiguring and paralyzing condition that, until the 1900s, had no known cure. Sufferers were forced from their homes and exiled into colonies, where they wouldn't be able to spread the disease to the larger population.

Among attempts to quarantine lepers? Giving them their own currency. Many people feared leprosy could be transmitted by handling money, so special coins were minted (and, in some cases, paper bills printed) for leper colonies in areas including Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, the U.S. Canal Zone, and the Philippines. Some city officials found another convenient use for leper money—paying inmates for their work and allowing them to buy personal items with it. This, so the logic went, prevented prisoners from ever being able to save up "real" money to aid in an escape.

4. The Coin from 1780 That's Definitely Not from 1780: The Maria Theresa Thaler


The English word "dollar" comes from "thaler," any of several large silver coins issued in the German-speaking countries of central Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries. But by far the most famous is the Maria Theresa thaler, which features a portrait of Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria (1717"“1780) on the front. And though the archduchess' thalers were Austrian coins, they wound up being circulated across North Africa and the Middle East for almost two centuries. Because Austrian traders used them to buy coffee in the Middle East, thalers quickly became popular among Eastern merchants, who came to trust the weight and purity of the coins' silver content.

The catch? Merchants put their trust solely in the 1780 Maria Theresa thaler. When presented with newer (and perfectly legitimate) thalers imprinted with more current dates or featuring different monarchs, Eastern traders assumed the coins were counterfeits. Eventually, it became such a problem that the Austrian government agreed to mint new Maria Theresa thalers, dated 1780, for foreign trade. In fact, for decades after that prized date, demand for the coins was so strong that mints in Italy, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands churned out their own versions of the 1780 Maria Theresa thaler.

Reportedly, the 1780 thalers were still circulating in parts of Yemen, Muscat, and Oman until the early 1980s. And today, Austria still mints Maria Theresa thalers, though they're commemorative coins not used for regular trade. Estimates vary, but it's believed between 400 million and 800 million of them may have been minted during the last 225 years.

5. The Coin You Can Never Take on an Airplane: Spanish Pieces of Eight

In the New World, colonists had to get creative when it came to currency. Because the British were too cheap to mint coins for their American settlements, colonists had to make do with barter, paper money, or whatever foreign coins they could scrape up through trade. Fortunately, Spain's New World colonies were rich in silver mines, and the Spanish had plenty of coins to toss around.

At the time, Spain minted coins about the same size as the Germanic silver thaler coins of Europe, and Americans took to calling them "Spanish dollars." But officially, Spanish dollars were valued at eight reals (real being Spanish for "royal"). So how do you make change for a Spanish dollar? For our colonial forefathers, it was easy. Knowing that silver is a fairly soft metal, they'd just take a mallet and a chisel, or even an axe, and slice up the coin like a pizza. The cut slices were called "bits," or pieces of eight. A 2-real piece was worth about 25 U.S. cents, which is why a quarter is sometimes referred to as "two bits." Another term for cut coin slices was "sharp silver," because the points were indeed sharp enough to cut cloth or even skin.

The circulation of pieces of eight and Spanish dollars in America began to decline after the first U.S. Mint opened in Philadelphia in 1792. However, it took a long time for the establishment to catch up with America's demand for coins, and foreign currency was legal tender in the United States until 1857.

6. The Dreamiest Coin of All Time: The King Edward Coin

When Britain's King Edward VIII gave up his crown, he also gave up the glory of seeing his face on English currency. Edward succeeded his father, King George V, in 1936, but problems quickly arose after he announced his intentions to wed a twice-divorced American named Wallis Simpson. Rather than dump his scandalous fiancée, Edward played to the fairy-tale dreams of every girl in the world and gave up the crown instead.

Edward VIII's reign lasted less than one year, which wasn't long enough for Britain to switch to new coins, so all the British coins minted during his reign still bore the profile of his late father. Certain colonial coins, such as this 1936 10-cent piece from British East Africa, carried King Edward's name, but not his image. Rare relics of Edward's short (and romantic) reign, these coins are a numismatist favorite.

As for the hole in the middle, that's a fairly common design trait of yore. One explanation is that it allowed people to carry their coins on a string or wear them on a necklace, so they'd be easier to keep track of.

7. The Not-Quite Counterfeit Coin: The 1804 Silver Dollar


America's most famous rare coin is the 1804 silver dollar. Why so special? Because it was actually made by mistake. Due to governmental budget constraints, the production of silver dollars was halted in the early 19th century. And while a few thousand $1 coins were minted in 1804, they were produced frugally, using the previous year's dies. Ironically, the first $1 coins dated 1804 weren't made until 1834, when the United States decided to present the King of Siam and the Sultan of Muscat with a diplomatic gift: complete sets of American coins. Records at the U.S. Mint correctly listed 1804 as the last year silver dollars were made, but didn't specify that the last ones were dated 1803. Consequently, American officials decided to strike a few new dollars with the date 1804, and ended up creating a coin that had never before existed.

Today, there are only 15 of these 1804 silver dollars left. Eight of them were from the batch minted as diplomatic gifts. The other seven were produced between 1858 and 1860, when an employee of the Philadelphia Mint decided to get rich quick on the coin collector's market. Using the mint's silver and equipment, he struck a number of new 1804 silver dollars to sell to collectors. The phony coins (although illegally produced, they're technically not counterfeits because they were made at a U.S. Mint) were eventually found and melted down—all but seven of them, that is. One of these re-strikes was auctioned in 2003 for $1.21 million, but that's chump change compared to the $4.14 million paid for one of the original coins back in 1999.

8. The "Choose Your Own Coin" Coin: Blank Coins

blank_coin_200.jpgThe quality-control regulators at our mints do a great job of catching mistakes, but luckily for collectors, some botched coins do make their way into circulation. Among the more common errors are blank coins, such as this one-cent piece. Coins are made by pressing a die onto a planchet, or coin blank, that's been punched out of a piece of sheet metal. Sometimes, a planchet slips through the process without being struck, and a blank coin, such as the one above, ends up in an otherwise ordinary roll of pennies. Other common errors include coins struck off-center, coins struck on the wrong planchet (i.e., the image of a quarter stamped onto a penny), and double-struck coins.

9.  The Coin You Could Stub a Toe On: England's Giant Pennies

The original English penny was a silver piece descended from a dime-size Roman silver coin, but that sleek and elegant design began to change in the late 1700s. During that century, Britain struggled with the cost of minting coins and often didn't bother to mint them in small denominations. Labor costs were high, and those who had money dealt in larger denominations, anyway. Then, in the late 18th century, inventors Matthew Boulton and James Watt (who are often credited with creating the first practical steam engine) invented coin-making machinery that greatly cut production costs.

During the Middle Ages, English monarchs, always in need of money, realized they could make a profit by cranking out pennies with less than a penny's worth of silver. More and more copper was added to the mix, and by the turn of the 19th century, pennies were entirely copper (or bronze). Of course, because these metals were cheaper, the coins got bigger—much bigger.

For the next century and a half, English pennies stayed big—about the size of a modern U.S. half dollar. They also stayed heavy. In fact, demonstrators in the 1960s sometimes used British pennies to throw at police officers. And in 1966, a woman was arrested in Nevada for plunking British pennies into slot machines meant to take U.S. half-dollar coins.

Inflation eventually drove the price of copper so high that making coins out of the metal no longer made sense. By 1969, a ton of English pennies, worth about $1,080 U.S., could be melted down and sold for more than $1,600 worth of scrap copper. The official end to the giant penny craze came in 1971, when Great Britain decided to decimalize its currency.

Incidentally, the United States once followed in the mother country's footsteps by minting huge pennies. From 1793 to 1857, America made one-cent pieces that were almost the size of today's half dollars.

10. The Coin That Taught the Government  to Recycle: Steel Pennies

steelcent_f.jpgWhile meat, sugar, and gasoline were in short supply during World War II, Uncle Sam was also having trouble getting his hands on enough copper. Turns out, the country's entire supply was being used to mint coins. In fact, it's estimated some 4,600 tons of copper went toward making pennies in 1942—enough to make 120 field cannons or 1.25 million artillery shells. So, in 1943, copper pennies were replaced with pennies made of zinc-coated steel.

Steel pennies were unpopular from the start. Vending machines read them as fakes; streetcar conductors mistook them for dimes; and, after the coins had circulated for a short time, the zinc began to wear off and the steel core began to rust.

By the end of 1943, steel pennies were on their way out. But, how would the government scrounge up enough copper for decent self-respecting pennies? Recycling, of course. Army and Navy personnel were ordered to pick up rifle and artillery-shell casings from firing ranges and even battlefields. The empty brass shells were then sent to the Mint, where they were melted down, mixed with a little more copper, and made into pennies.

The campaign worked. All U.S. pennies minted in 1944 and 1945 were made from World War II shell casings. Yet, the new coins presented their own problems. Sometimes, the brass shell cases and fresh copper weren't mixed completely, giving some of the coins noticeable brass streaks. Also, the explosive residue in the shell casings often stained or discolored the pennies.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.
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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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