CLOSE
Original image

Sex & Death in the Afternoon: An Oral History of the American Soap Opera

Original image

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

by Lisa Rosen

Come with us now, on a long and twisty journey; a search for tomorrow and a look back on the days of our lives. Romance! Love! Agony! Adultery! Angry aliens! The American soap opera has seen them all, and much more. Their history is the history of TV itself—a genre that once held the fortunes of all three major networks in its hands. At its height, 19 shows represented 20 million loyal viewers who hung on to every tortured plot point, and went along for the ride when their programs shattered taboo after taboo. Now the daytime soap is on the brink of extinction. So join us for a wild, uncensored look behind the scenes of the rise, fall, and possible resurrection of an American Institution.

Part I: The Addiction Begins (1932–1963)

They started out on radio—live, 10- to 15-minute chunks of ongoing romance, anguish, and high drama, all aimed squarely at housewives and sponsored, as their moniker suggests, by soap conglomerates such as Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive. The first of the half hour–long television soaps, As the World Turns and The Edge of Night, premiered on the same day in 1956. And there was no turning back. Soaps quickly garnered a freakishly dedicated audience that was in agony every Friday when their “stories” left them with a cliffhanger. ?

The genre’s first auteur was an eccentric writer, producer, and former actress named Irna Phillips. She invented her first daytime network radio serial in 1930 at the age of 31 and then went on to create many of the biggest titles in radio and TV. In the same years she churned out 2 million words a year. And in doing so, she single-handedly invented most of the conventions that have defined soaps for the past century.

Ken Corday, executive producer, Days of Our Lives (1985–present), and a second-generation soap man (son of Days co-creators Ted and Betty Corday): Irna Phillips was the grand pharaoh of soap operas. She really cooked up all of it. She was a brilliant woman who lived a very secluded life. She only traveled by train; she never stayed above the second floor of any hotel. All of us knew about her quirks. But her imagination was so vivid that she was able to personify so many aspects of life and get them down on the page—and then into people’s homes.

Tim Brooks, former NBC executive, TV historian: There was a lot of experimentation going on in those days; stations and networks were just getting up and running. They were all trying to figure out this new medium. Soaps were a big part of that process. What could be done with them dramatically? And how much could they make? No one knew.

Ken Corday: My earliest memory is picking out the logo for As the World Turns with my father at the Museum of Natural History—that incredibly famous film clip of the Earth turning around and around. I was about 5. The show went on the air in 1956.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, soaps were increasingly welcomed into the daily lives of American women. Fans identified so strongly with the characters that the line between reality and fantasy often blurred. No matter what your life was really like, the life of a soap character was infinitely more interesting.

Sam Ford, co-editor, The Survival of Soap Opera: I had a high school teacher who came home from school one day, and her mother was talking to her aunt on the phone, saying, “You won’t believe what happened to Joe!” She listened to the conversation, and it was getting worse and worse, and she thought, “My God, which neighbor could she be talking about?” Of course, they were discussing soaps.

Wendy Riche, executive producer, General Hospital (1992–2001), Port Charles (1997–1999): Soaps first came into my consciousness when I moved back in with my parents—pregnant and not married. My mother was watching Days of Our Lives, and she said, “Ooh, look Wendy, they’ve got a story on that’s just like you!”

William Reynolds, writer, presidential historian, The Edge of Night superfan: In 1961, on The Edge of Night, a character was killed saving her toddler from an oncoming car. The switchboards lit up so much at CBS that the actors who played the husband and wife on the show appeared as themselves at the end of an episode a few days later to explain why the character was killed. Nothing like this had happened before, or since, on a daytime or nighttime show.

Between 1951 and 1959, 35 soaps had premiered— most produced in New York City—and the need for actors was overwhelming. While the genre was often derided for offering some of the worst acting ever broadcast, most of the thespians actually came from Broadway or film. It took a special performer to memorize a 44-page script up to five days a week for 50 weeks a year.

Don Hastings, actor (Jack Lane, The Edge of Night, 1956–1960, and Dr. Bob Hughes, As the World Turns, 1960–2010): Almost all of us came out of the theater or radio. There was no such thing as a “soap actor.”

Chris Goutman, executive producer, As the World Turns (1999–2010): I’ve been with the best theater and film actors who’ve been thrown into day roles on shows and who just couldn’t hack it.

William J. Reynolds: I always remember the episode where Lobo Haines kidnapped Mike Karr (actor Forrest Compton) on The Edge of Night in 1972. Karr was taken to a warehouse, tied up, and blindfolded, and because Compton was blindfolded, he couldn’t see the teleprompter, and he skipped a whole act’s worth of dialogue. This was aired live.

Don Hastings: It was murder. There were a lot of actors who would do one show and quit.

Erika Slezak, Daytime Emmy award–winning actress (Viki Lord, One Life to Live, 1971–present): (Producer) Doris Quinlan said to me, “I’d love to have your father (Tony award–winning actor Walter Slezak) on the show, but I can’t afford him.” I said, “Well, just ask him.” He spent three days on the show. He said it was the most difficult, nerve-wracking thing he’d ever done. We rehearsed all day and then taped at 4:30 p.m. He was used to six weeks of rehearsal. I was really worried about him because he kept saying, “It’s so hard! It’s so hard!”

Chris Goutman: One actor wrote his lines on the rim of his plate during restaurant scenes. You just hoped he would spin the plate in the right direction, so he’d get his lines right.

Jacklyn Zeman, actress (Bobbie Spencer, General Hospital, 1977–present): There were no makeup changes or hair changes during a show. That’s why we’d have full makeup on when we were shown in bed. The scene before might have been in a restaurant. During the commercial break you had only two minutes to get your negligee on—that was it. People didn’t understand why we all looked so glamorous while lying in bed. It wasn’t because we were too vain to take off our makeup; it’s because we didn’t have time.

Kimberly McCullough, actress (Robin Scorpio, General Hospital, 1985–present): There was this one actress who was really mad because she was fired, so on her last line of her last scene she opened up her shirt, took her bra off, looked at the camera, and said “F--- you!” and walked off the set. Stuff like that happened all the time. I think every door in the building was broken from someone slamming it.

Ken Corday: William Bell (creator of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful) had a great quote: “Give me a great script, two wonderful actors, and a waterfall—and who in God’s name needs the waterfall?”

Part II: Leave No Taboo Unbroken (1962–1972)

Despite highbrow disdain for soaps, the genre has constantly pushed the envelope on TV’s depiction of socially sensitive issues such as abortion, rape, drug addiction, and homosexuality. In 1962, when Agnes Nixon—Irna Phillips’ protégé and successor as the most powerful writer-producer in the business—proposed a story that dealt with cervical cancer (inspired by a friend’s death from the disease), the network and sponsor recoiled in horror. Nixon used her clout to get it made. After this, the taboos fell fast and hard, making prime time seem tame by comparison.

Kay Alden, co–head writer, The Young and the Restless (1973–2007), The Bold and the Beautiful (2007–present): Agnes (Nixon), more than any single individual, realized she could use her shows as a vehicle to get messages out about things that were important. She was largely responsible for first making women aware of the importance of getting a Pap smear. Agnes did that story, and it was huge, and it was fabulous.

Michael Fairman, soap journalist and advocate: Erica Kane had daytime TV’s first legal abortion, on All My Children (in 1973). It was like, they’re going to tell an abortion story? And use Erica Kane? It was such a big deal. But they botched it years later—the story line, not the abortion—by negating that it was an abortion. Instead, it turns out she’d had a demon-seed child.

Tina Sloan, actress (Kate Thornton Cannell, Somerset, 1974–76, and Lillian Raines, Guiding Light, 1983–2009):
I had my TV abortion shortly after Erica Kane had hers. It was one of the first depicted in any way on television, on Somerset in 1974. Ted Danson, who played a scheming lawyer, went with me to get it. And then I was punished for ?it by going completely insane.

Ken Corday: It was always a battle. In 1968 we wrote a story line that had one of our characters, Tommy Horton, return from Vietnam with amnesia and post-traumatic stress disorder. War was completely raging at the time, and the network wouldn’t let us mention it in any way whatsoever. They said, “No, let’s just say that he came back from Korea.” We said, “Wait, Korea was 1950 … this is 1968!” But they insisted that we couldn’t talk about Vietnam. So he came back from Korea.

Soaps continued to fight the networks and sponsors by weaving controversial issues into their story-lines. None brought as much attention—and respect—as the honest depictions of the AIDS epidemic on One Life to Live and General Hospital.

Michael Fairman: On General Hospital, they brought in Stone (Michael Sutton) as a love interest for Robin. They had unprotected sex. He was HIV positive. She got the virus from him. So while he died, she lived.

Wendy Riche: We figured that if we did that story through the innocence of an intelligent girl, we would be able to have a big impact—it’s not just gay people or heroin addicts that get AIDS; it’s anybody.

Michael Fairman: That story broke our hearts.

Wendy Riche: We did a spin-off ABC Afterschool Special with Kimberly and Michael. It was called “Positive: A Journey into AIDS.” We took them to a real hospice, which is where we taped.

Kimberly McCullough: There was this guy there, Lewis, who I connected with right away. He was going blind, so I was reading to him. I went back for the taping and found out he had died a few days before. They hadn’t told me, because they wanted to get my reaction on camera. I was so pissed off at the producers for putting me in that position that I almost didn’t finish the special. I didn’t want to be used as an actor playing a character to represent something. It became about me at that moment.

Soaps introduced more and more gay characters into their stories, though not all were steps forward. One Life to Live featured a closeted gay district attorney who killed two people to cover his secret. On the other hand, Eden Riegel’s character on All My Children became a gay icon.

Eden Riegel, actress (Bianca Montgomery, All My Children, 2000–2010, and Heather Stevens, The Young and the Restless, 2010–present): Bianca was the first main character who was a lesbian. She was an essential character because she was Erica Kane’s daughter.

Julie Hanan Carruthers, executive producer, All My Children (2003–present): In the focus groups in cities around the country, people were like, “She’s Erica Kane’s daughter—there’s no way she’s gay! She’s just mixed up. They’re going to send her to a psychiatrist and fix her.”

Eden Riegel: Agnes was inspired by what was then going on with Cher and Chastity Bono.

Julie Hanan Carruthers: Over time, viewers got to know the characters as people and not as labels.

Eden Riegel: It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. It was only later that I realized how groundbreaking this was. Soaps are geared toward Middle America, and these people were inviting a gay person into their living rooms every day. It was powerful, and because of that particular medium, I think it changed a lot of minds.

Part III: The Go-Go Glory Years (1973–1999)

A 1976 Time cover story featured the soaps’ first supercouple, Bill and Susan Hayes, whose on-screen romance on Days of Our Lives mirrored a widely publicized off-screen affair. Daytime dramas had become a phenomenon, with 20 million viewers—and a revenue that paid for the networks’ primetime offerings. Soaps were now watched by nearly everyone, from Gerald Ford to Sammy Davis, Jr. The networks pushed the concept to primetime with Dynasty and Dallas.

Bill Hayes, actor (Doug Williams, Days of Our Lives, 1970–present):
Susan and I met in 1970, doing some scenes together. Our producer, Bill Bell, saw something flashing between our eyes and said, “Whoa—I’m going with a new story.” And he started writing fabulous stuff for us.

Susan Seaforth Hayes, actress (Julie Olson Williams, Days of Our Lives, 1968–present): We had a wonderful romance on the show, which evolved into an off-screen romance. ?My mother told me, “Never fall in love with male nurses or actors.” I don’t know why she was so negative about nurses.

Bill Hayes: In 1974, Susan and I got married in my living room with 16 people. In 1976, when Doug and Julie got married, we had 16 million people.

Ken Corday: The networks tried to outdo each other. We’d spend hundreds of thousands of dollars going on location. We went to Greece, to France. And primetime started to imitate daytime. But daytime was better.

Suzanne Rogers, actress (Maggie Horton, Days of Our Lives, 1973–present): A lot of firemen came up to me and said they loved my show. I guess they don’t fight fires all the time. They’re in the firehouse; how often can they wash those hoses?

William Reynolds: In 1973, the Watergate hearings were televised. Nobody wanted to preempt soaps on all three networks at once, so they had to rotate coverage. One day CBS would air the hearings, the next day NBC, and the next ABC.

The 1980s might well be called the Luke and Laura Decade. The undisputed super heavyweight supercouple from General Hospital started their relationship with rape and ended it at the altar. General Hospital became the wild soap epicenter, mirroring the excesses of the times—on and off the set.

Kimberly McCullough: Everyone was on coke. There were a lot of affairs. There were things I wasn’t picking up on, but I was a kid. As I got older, I was like, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”

Tristan Rogers, actor (Robert Scorpio, General Hospital, 1981–2008, and Colin Atkinson, The Young and the Restless, 2010–present):
It was a crazy decade. As long as you made sense of what you were doing on camera, you could get away with anything.

Michael Fairman: The 1980s started out with [executive producer] Gloria Monty’s resuscitation of GH. The show was dying. It was her idea to bring in Tony Geary and pair him with Genie Francis. Also to break out of the four walls of the studio and start doing location shoots.

Jacklyn Zeman: All of a sudden, it was cool to be on General Hospital.

Kimberly McCullough: I remember one time Jack Wagner and [then-wife] Kristina were doing a love scene, and he didn’t want to get out of bed because he was actually naked. He took the bottle of Champagne they were supposed to be drinking, pulled it under the covers and peed in it. He did stuff like that all the time, and (Kristina) was like, “Jack, oh my God, stop it!”

Tim Brooks: You had guys on soaps who’d take their shirts off in May and wouldn’t put them back on until September.

Genie Francis, actress (Laura Spencer, General Hospital, 1977–2008, Genevieve Atkinson, The Young and the Restless, 2010–present): Gloria [Monty] really had a plan for the two of us. I think the rape was a calculated part of it. People were enraged. It was all over the news. Then they sort of switched the whole thing and called it a rape/seduction. I was supposed to be fascinated by Luke—thankfully, Tony (Geary) made that very easy. I didn’t foresee that the whole thing would become that big. At all.

Michael Fairman: The biggest moment was obviously Luke and Laura’s wedding in 1981. I was inside a Sears, and all of us were watching in the store. It was a huge crowd.

Sam Ford: The wedding episode drew more people than any single daytime episode ever—30 million viewers. That won’t be broken.

Genie Francis: I was always kind of shocked at the hordes of people who were interested in it. It’s a strange experience to think about now. It’s almost like it happened to someone else.

During the Luke and Laura era, General Hospital had celebrity groupies who vied for a cameo. Elizabeth Taylor was their biggest catch.

Tristan Rogers: When Liz came on the show, I had a one-on-one scene with her. She had all the dialogue down, a total pro. She walks on with a drink in her hand, and I’ve got my prop drink. I said, “What did they give you to drink?” She said, “Some of that stuff there.” Piled against one wall was all this pink Dom Perignon. She said, “You want a hit? Drain it!” I drained it, thanks. So we’re having our own little fun. Gloria Monty comes out onto the set. Of course she wasn’t going to chew Elizabeth out, so she said to me, “Tristan, this is a professional show, you’re wasting our time.” Liz turned to her and said, “Who do you think you’re talking to?” I had close-ups of the back of my shoes for about a month.

Chris Goutman: I think (Luke and Laura’s wedding) was when soap operas took a wrong turn. We started chasing this chimera, instead of trying to be true to our roots.

Sam Ford: Suddenly every other soap starts pushing their longtime characters far into the back burner, and they each have their super-couple. That might have been a great model to save General Hospital, but when every soap went in that direction, the whole genre changed.

The frenzied success and lavish productions of the 1980s soon gave way to a harsh reality in the 1990s. Ratings were declining, so story lines became more outlandish, involving demonic possession, bizarre murders, orangutan nurses, and talking dolls. Passions premiered in 1999. It would be the last new network daytime drama.

Ken Corday: MTV came along, and we noticed people’s attention span had gotten a bit shorter. Our head writer, James Reilly, started coming up with stories that made all of us say, “You’ve got to be kidding.” One was when Vivian buried Carly alive. Ratings went through the roof. Then Jim said, “I’m going to go one better. I’m going to have Marlena possessed by the Devil!”

Erika Slezak: I think the writers got bored, and they thought, oh Christ, what can we do now? They came up with ridiculous stories. There was one called “Eterna” where we found an underground city, and nine of us fell through a rabbit hole and spent months there. They had a story where I was hypnotized to kill my son. I went to them and said, “This is horrible.”

Part IV: Daytime Turns to Twilight (2000–present)

By the end of the 1990s a sky-is-falling paranoia gripped network execs, who saw that cable TV was forever ending their monopoly. Soaps were showing their age. And cheap reality TV was flooding the airwaves. Producers began to cut costs drastically, but it was clear that the networks had other plans for their time slots.

Julie Hanan Carruthers: The week before I was supposed to start work at General Hospital, I was glued to the set watching O.J. Simpson’s white car driving all over Southern California, thinking, I can’t believe I’m watching a car. All of a sudden people realized what cable meant: options. When you looked at numbers, you could mark it almost to the day. The drop was immediate, and it never came back.

Barbara Bloom, vice president, director, daytime, ABC (1996–2000), and senior vice president, daytime, CBS, (2003–2011): [Ratings] have gone down consistently since the 1970s. I’ve had it researched every way from the wazoo. Sometimes there’s a big, publicized story line where things pick up, but other than that, it’s been a slow, grinding, consistent loss.

Stephanie Sloane, editorial director, Soap Opera Digest and Soap Opera Weekly: You’re still looking at ratings that some shows on the CW don’t get. There’s still a passionate audience. The people who are watching remain hugely invested in these shows.

Greg Meng, co-executive producer, Days of Our Lives (1999–present): NBC came to us and said we have to cut our licensing fee in half. Well, everyone was freaking out: It can’t be done!

Ken Corday: We’ve had to reinvent the way we do the show; it’s a much tighter, leaner machine. We’re still on the air because we showed we could do the show for half the cost. Quite a bite.

Bill Hayes: When Susan and I started out in this business, we read through every episode the night before, staged it, timed it, rehearsed it, and the next morning started again. Then we rehearsed for the cameraman, had a dress rehearsal, notes, and then we did the taping.

Susan Hayes: Today, your blocking rehearsal is “Cross to his elbow, and then leave the room. Got it, thanks. Moving on.”

It became clear that the American daytime drama was doomed. The eccentric, low-rated Passions was first to fall in 2008, but then came some shockers. Irna Phillips’ venerable Guiding Light—the longest-running show in radio and TV history—was extinguished in 2009, followed by As the World Turns in 2010. Then, on April 14, 2011, to the dismay of soap fans, ABC announced the cancellation of both All My Children and One Life to Live. In 2012, only four daytime soaps will air on the three legacy networks.

Tina Sloan: We believed we could save Guiding Light. We knew that if our 72-year-old-show went, everybody would go. [CBS President and CEO] Les Moonves and I had a talk, and he said, “I gave you an extra year or two.” Then he replaced us with a game show.

Chris Goutman: We knew that when Guiding Light went off, our days [on As the World Turns] were numbered. I was bawling like a baby when they announced it.

Erika Slezak: I think that Brian Frons, the head of ABC Daytime, doesn’t believe in the genre. He never believed they could last. My biggest objection is ABC saying people don’t want entertainment anymore; they want information. That’s ridiculous. People always want entertainment.

Julie Hanan Carruthers: I’m a little shell-shocked. I feel part of the cultural fabric of what I’ve grown up with is disintegrating and changing.

Don Hastings: CBS didn’t even say goodbye to us after 50 years. There was nothing to anybody on the show who had served on it, any kind of official “Gee, we’re sorry, and good luck.” The show itself gave the cheapest party I’ve ever been to. Just a very sad end. That’s the part I don’t miss.

But all soap fans love a good resurrection story. Since 1995, shoestring-budget short-form serials for the Internet, such as Venice and Empire, have attracted loyal followers who pay annual subscriptions to watch on YouTube and other outlets. Three months after ABC cancelled All My Children and One Life to Live, it made a surprise announcement: The shows would live on, in a downscaled form, on the Web. Prospect Park, an indie production company, will begin airing new episodes online when the shows’ network TV runs ends. It’s the ultimate cliffhanger: Can a beloved American institution reboot in the 21st century?

Roger Newcomb, founder, Welovesoaps.net: We invented the term “indie soap” a few years ago. It’s how we refer to all these Web series, which are like minisoaps with continuing story arcs from week to week. That’s the future.

Frank Valentini, executive producer, One Life to Live (2003–present): Our society underestimates the attention span of people on the Internet. It’s a different platform, but it’s still entertainment. I think a longer form will work. It’s obvious where the technology is going, and people aren’t getting tired of looking at nice, large, beautiful screens.

Kay Alden: The potential exists for a return to the very origins of the soap opera format.

Roger Newcomb: In the early 1950s, there were so many articles that said soap operas were for housewives who were moving around the house and listening to radio; no way they are ever going to sit in front of a TV and watch this stuff. Now I read that people aren’t going to want to watch soaps on their computers. I think the technology is going to keep changing and make everything meld together.

Barbara Bloom: It will evolve. It’s just not going to evolve in the traditional sense. That part is over. And it’s not coming back.

Original image
John Ueland
arrow
History
How a Single Mom Created a Plastic Food-Storage Empire
Original image
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!”

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