CLOSE

What Monkeys Can Teach You About Money

This is a special sneak peek at the September-October issue of mental_floss magazine. Click here to get a risk-free issue!

by Allen St. John

How a Yale research team made history by teaching capuchins to spend money ... and discovered that they're just as smart—and stupid—as your financial advisor.

It’s a little bigger than a quarter and about twice as thick, but because it’s made of aluminum, it weighs roughly the same. It’s flat and smooth, except for what seem to be a few tiny bite marks around the perimeter. To you, it might look like a washer without a hole. To Felix, an alpha male capuchin monkey, and his friends at Yale University, it’s money.

“When one of the monkeys grabs a token, he’s going to hold onto it as though he really values it,” explains Laurie Santos, a psychology professor at Yale. “And the other monkeys might try to take it away from him. Just like they would with a piece of food. Just as you might want to do when you see a person flaunting cash.”

During the past seven years, Santos and Yale economist Keith Chen have conducted a series of cutting-edge experiments in which Felix and seven other monkeys trade these discs for food much like we toss a $20 bill to a cashier at Taco Bell. And in doing so, these monkeys became the first nonhumans to use, well, money.

“It sounds like the setup to a bad joke,” says Chen. “A monkey walks into a room and finds a pile of coins, and he’s got to decide how much he wants to spend on apples, how much on oranges, and how much on pineapples.”

But the remarkable thing about the research isn’t that these monkeys have learned to trade objects for food—after all, a schnauzer can be taught to hand over your slippers in exchange for a Milk-Bone. The amazing part, Chen and Santos discovered, is how closely the economic behavior of these capuchins mimics that of human beings in all its glorious irration?ality. Viewed in the context of the daisy chain of near-disastrous human failings that brought the world to the verge of fiscal collapse over the past few years, monkeynomics is eye-opening stuff.

So how much of our wild, dangerous economic behavior is hard-wired, and how much of it is learned? And most important, how much of it can be changed? Watching Felix and friends make financial decisions—some extremely smart, others profoundly dumb—provides groundbreaking insight into the roots of our own dysfunctional relationship with money. And why it all may have started 35 million years ago.

* * * * *

What kind of monkey would Santos be? “A bonobo,” she says with a laugh. “They’re kind of a hippie monkey.” With an infectious smile and curls that cascade down her back, the 35-year-old Santos exudes the cool prof vibe of someone who—all things being equal—would really rather be in a dorm, holding court about the meaning of life. “I’m fascinated by human beings, and monkeys are like humans in their purest form,” she says. She’s quick to offer a funny story about how she decided to pursue primate research after seeing a picture of the lush Caribbean island where the fieldwork was being done. But the truth is that her interest began with the idea that monkeys are like human beings without the cultural baggage.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Santos worked with behavioral scientist Marc Hauser and then signed on to do her dissertation based on research in his lab. Her work centered on basic questions of monkey cognition: How high can monkeys count? (To four.) Do they have a good sense of the practical physics of falling objects? (Not especially.)

This body of work earned her a tenure-track position at Yale, where in 2003 she was charged with setting up the school’s Comparative Cognition Lab. Santos chose capuchin monkeys for practical reasons. They’re smaller and easier to care for than chimps, but they’re almost as smart, resourceful, and social. She got 10 capuchins from noted researcher Frans de Waal at Emory University and planned to continue with the monkey cognition research that she had started at Harvard.

Then one day, one of the caretakers who cleaned the capuchin enclosures in the new lab told Santos that her monkeys were “geniuses.” Felix and friends, he explained with amazement, would hand him their discarded orange peels, trying to trade them for food. Maybe the monkeys were trying to make a point.

Around the time that Santos got the lab up and running, Chen was hired at Yale’s business school. Chen had also worked at Hauser’s lab at Harvard, although not directly with Santos. His dissertation included running game theory scenarios with cotton-top tamarins; he designed experiments to see if the monkeys would employ strategic cooperation to get food rewards and found that they were extremely similar to humans in that regard.

Chen and Santos met in the fall of 2003 at a New Haven student hangout called Koffee and hit it off immediately, recognizing their common interest in tracing the roots of fundamental human behaviors in other primates.

Together, they began brainstorming about what they could do with these “genius” monkeys. They tossed around a host of high-concept ideas, including an elaborate game theory simulation. One of Santos’ grad students constructed a Rube Goldberg–like structure that used stainless steel mechanical arms to divide quantities of food for the classic “ultimatum game,” which measures whether a subject will value fairness over maximal profit. “It was a big, complicated machine with a monkey at one end,” Chen recalls. The idea was ditched after the preposterously strong little capuchins kept casually ripping the machine’s steel arms apart.

And then Santos and Chen settled on something simple and elegant—and provocative.

“On a lark, we started investigating whether or not we could introduce them to a basic market economy,” Chen recalls. “I’m not even sure we had a good idea of how it would work. But if we could, I knew there were a dozen experiments that people in the economics world would be interested in.”

At this point, Chen was already something of a curiosity—the only economist in the world who did research on monkeys. “It’s totally bizarre,” he admits. “But I always worked on what I thought was most interesting.” And what was most interesting was seeing if capuchin monkeys could be taught to spend money.

* * * * *

So in the spring of 2004, after months of constructing the methodology and training the capuchins in the basics of token trading, Santos and Chen began their work. The Monkey Market was open for business.

Physically, the Monkey Market is a smaller enclosure attached to the capuchins’ larger communal home. It’s where the monkeys go to trade for treats. A video of one of these early experiments shows that when Felix, the group’s alpha male, entered, he received a “wallet” with 12 of those round aluminum tokens. Two student researchers, one wearing a pink T-shirt, the other blue, stood on either side of that 3-foot cubic enclosure, each holding a different tray of food. The premise at this stage was pretty basic: Felix could swap his tokens for food with either of the two researchers. He didn’t seem to care much about the students. But he did care profoundly about what the researchers would sell him in exchange for that little metal token.

Felix and the others were cautious, observant shoppers. As the video shows, Felix would head first to the researcher holding out pieces of orange, examining them carefully; before leaving, he stopped to smell them. He went to the other researcher and did exactly the same thing—looking, sniffing, shopping. He then headed back to the first researcher and handed over a token to complete the transaction. Oranges, please.

“When you watch it, it looks like they’re contemplating, thinking about what they’re going to buy,” says Santos. What separates these capuchins from the scores of animals who have been trained to perform complex behaviors in exchange for food is the option presented by that second researcher.

“The critical aspect of money is that it’s fungible. It represents a choice,” explains Chen. “A coin is fundamentally different than, say, pressing a lever.” Santos and Chen had not only achieved their preliminary goal, they had made history: The monkeys were using cash. The capuchins were now operating in a sphere where humans had been dwelling alone.

What next? Although Felix’s intense deliberations were fascinating to watch, they were really beside the point. According to economists, one single factor defines rational behavior in a consumer market: attention to price. Most old-school economics, Chen explains, relies on the bedrock principle that participants in a market will maximize value whenever possible. Could the capuchins become rational consumers?

The researchers began messing with the pricing in Monkey Market. The base currency was still one token for one fruit, but the amount of food and how it was delivered would now vary from day to day. Santos’ researchers began ?presenting the monkeys with two equally ?appealing options—one would offer a Jell-O cube, the other an apple slice. Then, like Walmart on Black Friday, they would spontaneously slash the price of the apple slices—two slices for a single token! Act now!—while the price of Jell-O remained the same.

The monkeys, like any smart bargain hunters, flocked to the lower-priced item.

Or, in econ-speak, they reacted to a compensated price shift. “That’s the critical hallmark,” says Chen. “When the cost and benefits change, do my decisions change?” When he examined the data, Chen found, to his delight and relief, that they most certainly did. The capuchins had proven not only to be consumers but also rational ones. Quantitatively and qualitatively, their behavior matched that of humans.

And not always in good ways. “One of the things we never saw in the Monkey Market was savings—just like with our own species. They always just spent all their cash at once,” says Santos. “The other thing, amazingly, was spontaneous evidence of larceny. They would rip off the tokens from each other and us at every opportunity.” Clearly the monkeys were screwing up in some of the same ways as people. But how far off track would they go? Santos and Chen decided to think big and introduce some of the same problems into the Monkey Market that have bedeviled centuries of humans.

* * * * *

Up to that point, the monkeys had been adhering to traditional laws of economics that rely on rational behavior. But a relatively new school of economics called prospect theory, led by maverick Nobel Prize–winning economist Daniel Kahneman, was challenging these tenets, positing that human economic behavior is often irrational. “We never thought this kind of behavior was learned,” says Kahneman, 77, who began developing his theories in the 1970s without having taken so much as a single economics course. “It was always clear to me that it’s biological.” But would the monkeys prove or disprove his paradigm-shifting theory? (Kahneman was aware of Santos and Chen’s research, but didn’t participate in it.)

Prospect theory argues that economic decision making is, like Einsteinian physics, relative. The theory contends that humans make economic decisions not in absolute terms, the way a computer might, but relative to some specific reference point—and that causes them to make mistakes. Most of us are risk averse; we’ll do almost anything to avoid a loss. And we treat losses very differently than gains. It’s why investors defy logic by selling off the winners in their portfolio instead of dumping the losers. And why homeowners in a housing slump will let their banks foreclose before they drop the price of their houses.

“We were already seeing deliberative decision making in our monkeys that went beyond what scientists had seen in animals before,” Chen explains. “So we just thought, Why not raise the stakes? Why don’t we investigate whether they’ll make the same mistakes that humans make?”

Simply put: Were the monkeys smart enough to act dumb?

Armed with cutting-edge economic theory, a handful of tokens, and a bin full of fruit, Santos and Chen introduced the concept of risk to the Monkey Market. In a series of three interrelated experiments designed carefully to mirror economic models, the monkeys chose between risky sellers and safe sellers. The first scenario represented a simple choice for the monkeys: Seller A would consistently deliver one piece of apple; Seller B would sometimes deliver one, and sometimes add one and deliver two. Seller B represented a no-brainer gamble, or what economists call stochastic dominance.

And the monkeys immediately grasped the significance of the scenario. They chose Seller B 87 percent of the time.

The second experiment presented a bigger challenge: Seller A would show the monkeys only one piece of apple, but add an extra piece half the time. Seller B, on the other hand, would show the monkeys two apple pieces, but half the time would hand one over and take one back.

Despite the fact that they were conditioned to trade with Seller B from the first experiment, the monkeys quickly reversed course and showed a strong 71 percent preference for Seller A. The data suggested that the two scenarios felt very different to the monkeys, just as they might to a human. But do the math: Each seller represented a 50/50 chance of ending up with two apple pieces. A computer would value each of the sellers equally. And yet the monkeys greatly preferred dealing with generous Seller A, who sometimes added a piece of apple, than stingy Seller B, who sometimes took an apple away. Fear of loss dictated their thinking. Their decision making wasn’t absolute; it was relative.

In the third experiment, the researchers reversed the options, changing from a bonus scenario to a loss scenario.

Seller A would show one apple piece and hand it over, while risky Seller B would show two but always take away one and deliver one. Despite the fact that both sellers gave the same payout—one apple piece—the monkeys strongly preferred Seller A.

Santos and Chen had hit a home run. When taken together, the results of the second and third experiments suggest that capuchins show an overwhelming loss aversion. Just like us.

Chen explains that the data set for the monkeys—which revealed a 2.7 to 1 risk preference in the loss model compared to the bonus model—was completely indistinguishable from what you might find in a trial using human subjects. “It’s a little spooky,” says Venkat Lakshminarayanan, a grad student in the lab.

“Sometimes I’d look at the numbers and forget that they’re monkeys,” Chen adds.

In the fall of 2008, when the housing bubble burst, and some of the world’s biggest financial institutions went straight to hell, Santos and Chen turned again to the monkeys. There were more tests of prospect theory risk behavior, and more confirmation of the evolutionary underpinnings behind the crazy—and yes, wildly irrational—behavior that led to the current recession.

Does this kinship between the capuchins and us have a limit? Chen and Santos seem to have found it. In humans, knowing the price of a costly item makes it more desirable—call it the Château Lafite Effect. Not so for the monkeys. A yet-to-be published study from 2010 showed that, for Felix and friends, raising the price did nothing to boost the appeal of a particular type of food. Finding the end as well of the beginnings of our kinship with the capuchins not only validated the group’s research, it placed a bookend on a groundbreaking body of work.

* * * * *

So what did Santos and Chen really learn after seven years of intense study? “Whatever mechanism in the brain that’s driving these biases is one and the same in capuchin monkeys and in us,” says Santos. “That means these strategies are 35 million years old.”

Moreover, the work with the Monkey ?Market has helped bolster a growing trend toward viewing economics as a more complex and nuanced science—one in which emotion plays as big a part as cold, hard logic. “The losers are going to fight harder than the potential gainers are,” explains Kahneman. “That asymmetry is really, really strong. It’s why there’s inertia against change. And reducing misery is more important than increasing happiness.”

Some economists have begun to create real-world scenarios that take our innate biases into account. Chen cites the Save More Tomorrow program devised by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler, in which the defaults for a 401(k) plan at a midsize firm were adjusted in accordance with prospect theory to maximize savings. “They’re framing savings not as a loss of income but as a smaller gain,” says Chen. The results were impressive: Employees enrolled in the plan tripled their savings rate from 3.5 percent to 11.6 percent in just two years.

And, even as the architect of work that shows how inherently flawed (even stupid) humans are when it comes to all things monetary, the ever-optimistic Santos still sees a positive side.

“The problem of modern economics is that it really does assume that we’re homo economicus,” she says. “And we’re not. We make mistakes. So there’s going to be a disconnect when we set up structures that assume we’re going to behave rationally, and we know that we won’t.” She pauses, collecting her thoughts on the couch in her sunny Yale office, which has a “Beware of Monkeys” sign on the wall. “That’s really the message of the work. We’re not doomed. We’re even smarter than the monkeys. We just have to admit that we’re not perfectly rational.”

This is a special sneak peek at the September-October issue of mental_floss magazine. Click here to get a risk-free issue!

nextArticle.image_alt|e
John Ueland
arrow
History
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.

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!”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images
arrow
History
The Confederacy's Plan to Conquer Latin America
Hulton Archive/Illustrated London News/Getty Images
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.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios