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The 25 Most Powerful Songs of the Past 25 Years

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by Jennifer Drapkin, Kevin O'Donnell and Ky Henderson

They’re not the most beautiful songs, or the most musically important. In fact, a few could literally drive you nuts. But the following tunes—some as old as Mozart, others as current as Beyonce?—have fundamentally altered the world we live in at some point in the last quarter century. They’ve saved lives, brought glory to America, and gotten teenagers to use deodorant. Somehow, they’ve made a difference. So, ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the ultimate power playlist. Let the countdown begin!

25. "The Magic Flute" (Mozart)

Music That Makes Sewage Disappear
For all the chatter about how Mozart makes your kids smarter (false!) or how it helps with the SATs (possibly), the one thing that Mozart definitely seems to do is make sludge-eating microbes digest faster. A sewage treatment plant in Treuenbrietzen, Germany, has experimented with different operas, playing them at high volume through loudspeakers set up around the site. "The Magic Flute" seems to work best. Anton Stucki, the plant's chief operator, believes the reverberations quicken the pace for breaking down refuse. "We think the secret is in the vibrations of the music, which penetrate everything—including the water, the sewage, and the cells," he says. "It creates a certain resonance that stimulates the microbes and help them work better." Stucki doesn't even like opera; he's a rock 'n' roll fan. But he tolerates Mozart because it makes the microbes more efficient, saving the plant up to $1,250 a month.

24. "867-5309/Jenny" (Tommy Tutone)

The Drunk-Dialing Song
For nearly three decades, this single has been a gift to smashed college kids everywhere. Ever since the song was released in 1982, crank callers have been dialing 867-5309 and asking for “Jenny.” People who are unfortunate enough to be assigned the number can look forward to dozens of prank calls a day, depending on where they live.

A few people have managed to turn the digits to their advantage. In 2004, disc jockey Spencer Potter of Weehawken, N.J., discovered 867-5309 was available in his area code and picked it up, thinking it would be good for business. Almost immediately, Potter was overwhelmed by the volume of calls. So in February 2009, he sold it on eBay to Retro Fitness, a health club that felt the digits fit perfectly with its 1980s-nostalgia theme. In the end, Potter made $186,853.09—a number he could live with.

23. "I Will Always Love You" (Whitney Houston)

The Song That Showed Saddam's Softer Side

© INA/Handout/Reuters/Corbis

You might think winning elections is easy for dictators—after all, they aren’t running against anyone. But there’s still pageantry involved, which Saddam Hussein took seriously. To win the hearts and minds of Iraqis in 2002, Hussein boldly chose as his campaign anthem an Arabic cover of Whitney Houston’s version of “I Will Always Love You” (written by Dolly Parton). The song was played alongside footage of the dictator kissing babies, shooting guns, and striking heroic poses on Iraq’s three TV stations continuously during the election season. If that’s not proof Hussein tortured his own people, we don’t know what is.

22. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Nirvana)

The Tune That Revolutionized the Underarm Industry
Kurt Cobain claimed he didn’t know Teen Spirit was a brand of deodorant when he wrote Nirvana’s 1991 grunge anthem. In fact, the name of the song came from his apartment wall, where a friend had spray-painted “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit.” But the song’s impact on the antiperspirant was undeniable. The product’s manufacturer, Mennen, came out with a new tagline: “Do you smell like Teen Spirit?” Sales of the deodorant skyrocketed, and Mennen quickly expanded its line of Teen Spirit products; six months after the song was released, Colgate-Palmolive bought the company for $670 million. Though grunge fans didn’t care so much about how they dressed, apparently they cared how they smelled.

21. "Gran Vals” (Francisco Tarrega)

The Sound that Ended Silence Forever
You may not realize it, but you know this tune all too well. Nokia introduced the 13-note piano phrase 20 years ago, creating the first ringtone. It’s estimated the passage is now heard 1.8 billion times around the world each day, about 20,000 times per second. The ringtone comes from “Gran Vals,” a 1902 guitar solo written by classical guitarist Francisco Tarrega. In 1993 the tune was hijacked by Nokia exec Anssi Vanjoki, who thought it would be the perfect default ring for the sleek, new half-pound Nokia 2110. Today, you’re not the only person tired of the tone. The search for alternate phone sounds has turned ringtones into a multi-billion dollar business.

20. "Panama” (Van Halen)

The Song That Toppled a Dictator
Sometimes music moves people. And sometimes it moves them out of hiding. In December 1989, the United States invaded Panama after dictator Manuel Noriega was publicly exposed as a drug czar. Noriega took refuge in the embassy of the Vatican on December 24, and American troops immediately surrounded the compound. To smoke him out without bombing the place, soldiers of the U.S. Southern Command Network Radio turned to Van Halen.

Loudspeakers were set up around the compound and the sonic blasting began. After 10 days of being assaulted by the rock group’s “Panama” and other songs at high decibel levels, Noriega decided that he’d rather be behind bars, and on January 3, 1990, he surrendered. He was convicted on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering—all because he couldn’t handle a few power chords. Incidentally, the song isn’t even about the Central American country. Legend has it that it’s about lead singer David Lee Roth’s station wagon.

19. "Runaway Train” (Soul Asylum)

The Song That Proved Some Children Go Missing for a Reason

Few people pay attention to public service announcements, but back in 1992, lots of people watched music videos on MTV. So on paper, it seemed like a great idea to combine the two. For Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train,” director Tony Kaye made a video featuring missing children, hoping to find them. And it worked; the video located so many runaways that Kaye made six versions—three for the United States and one each for the United Kingdom, Australia, and Germany.

The problem was, when missing children turn up, the results aren’t always pretty. Some were found dead. Several others were forced to return home to horrible situations. In 2006, Soul Asylum guitarist Dan Murphy reflected on the consequences: “There’s a reason that young kids run away, mostly because of abuse,“ he told the Pasadena Weekly. “There were some happy results from [the video], but you have to resolve the situation that caused an 11- or 13-year-old to think the harsh world is better than their home.”

18. “Gates of Hades” (Nick Ashton)

The Sound of Getting Stoned
Sure, music can lift your spirits, but can it actually get you high? Plenty of U.S. teens claimed to be getting seriously buzzed after listening to “Gates of Hades,” a song that purportedly induced feelings in listeners ranging from pleasant dizziness to raging hallucinations. “Gates of Hades” and other tracks like it spawned a craze in 2010 called “i-Dosing.” Developed by Nick Ashton, the technology relies on “binaural beats,” in which a tone of one frequency is played into the right ear and a slightly different frequency is played into the left. Together, the tones supposedly synchronize brain waves, simulating such mental states as getting drunk, falling in love, or sexual arousal.

In 2010, i-Doser.com offered the song for free on YouTube as a sort of gateway drug, then sold additional tracks on their home page. According to Ashton, more than a million people paid for the songs that year alone. Before long, parents and authorities tried to kill the party; one Oklahoma City school went so far as to ban iPods in schools, so students couldn’t get high during homeroom. But it turns out parents didn’t have much to fear—though some teens claim to get buzzed off of i-Dosing, there’s no evidence to suggest it’s addictive or leads to using hard drugs. For the most part, it’s just noise.

17. “Better by You, Better Than Me” (Judas Priest)

The Song That Proved Subliminal Messaging Is Weak
Can a song drive you to suicide? In 1990, the heavy metal band Judas Priest was accused of prompting two drunk Reno, Nev., youths to shoot themselves after repeatedly listening to “Better By You, Better Than Me.” (One died instantly; the other survived after blowing half his face off.) Did the lyric “Do it,” allegedly hidden in the song, push them over the edge? Experts testified on both sides, but the judge dismissed the case, ruling, “The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude.” The precedent hasn’t been challenged since. As lead singer Rob Halford later noted, he had no reason to ask fans to commit suicide. If anything, he’d issue the command, “Buy more of our records.”

16. “The Cup of Life” (Ricky Martin)

The Song That Gave Pirates Courage Until the End
The pirate way to handle a death sentence is simple: booze and Ricky Martin. After being convicted of hijacking a ship and slaughtering its crew, 13 pirates were condemned to death in China in 2000. The morning of their execution, the pirates were given 30 minutes to visit with relatives, eat their last meal, and drink all the rice wine they could stomach. As they were led through the streets of Shanwei, the gang started loudly singing the 1998 World Cup theme—Ricky Martin’s “The Cup of Life.” In their final moments of drunken revelry, the pirates chanted, “Go! Go! Go! allez! allez! allez!”—the song’s refrain— and jumped up and down in their shackles. It was the best reception a Ricky Martin song had been given in years.

15. “Tom’s Diner” (Suzanne Vega)

The Song That Made Music Safe for the Internet
When compact discs were introduced in 1982, consumers marveled at the amount of information they could store. For every three-minute song, a CD uses about 32 megabytes of data. But that size proved to be unwieldy in the early, pokey days of the Internet. Using an old, dial-up modem, it might take eight hours to transfer or download a single song. So in the early 1990s, German engineer Dr. Karlheinz Brandenburg pioneered digital compression techniques for the MP3, crunching the size of audio data by a factor of 11. While tweaking the format, Brandenburg used Suzanne Vega’s 1987 a cappella rendition of “Tom’s Diner” as the benchmark for sonic quality. He reasoned that if he could get her warm vocals to sound good on MP3, then the new platform would work with just about anything. So, if you love downloading music, thank Vega for having such a pretty voice.

14. “Run the World (Girls)” (Beyoncé)

The Song That Woke up the Astronauts
As the astronauts of Atlantis orbited the Earth during NASA’s final space shuttle mission, they experienced 15 sunrises and sunsets every day. Consequently, their circadian rhythms were thrown off a little. Since a regular alarm clock just wouldn’t cut it, on July 16, 2011, the crew received a special wake-up call from R&B diva Beyonce?. The superstar got the astronauts out of bed with her girl-power anthem “Run the World (Girls).” Then she gave a shout-out to the only woman on the four-person crew, Sandy Magnus: “This song is especially for my girl Sandy, and all the women who’ve taken us to space with them, and the girls who are our future explorers.” Was it is a cheesy publicity stunt to promote her new album? You bet! But it beats waking up to a buzzer.

13. “As Slow as Possible” (John Cage)

The Song That's Outliving Its Composer (and Everyone Else, Too)

© Jens Wolf/dpa/Corbis

Right now, in St. Burchardi church in Halberstadt, Germany, there’s an organ playing a song that has no end—in our lifetime, anyway. Even though the sheet music for minimalist composer John Cage’s “As Slow as Possible” is only eight pages long, the song will take 639 years to complete. It’s part of Cage’s larger exploration of how music exists in time and space; he wrote the piece for an organ because the pipes can last for thousands of years. A machine, called a blower, constantly supplies air, and a weight holds down the pedals. The first three-note chord, which was played in 2003, lasted for a year and a half. The church is committed to playing the song until it’s over. If you can’t wait for the full version, don’t worry: The club remix will drop any day now.

12. “Unforgettable” (Natalie Cole)

The Song That Brought the Dead Back to Life
In 1991, Natalie Cole decided to sing with her late father, Nat “King” Cole. The decision opened a virtual can of worms. New digital technology allowed her producers to electronically engineer the duet with the dead singer, basing it on Nat’s 1951 recording of “Unforgettable.” People argued that the production was unethical, and more than a little creepy—even Natalie’s mom publicly criticized her—but the controversy was eclipsed by the song’s success. The attendant album sold more than 7 million copies and swept the Grammys. Nowadays, everybody sings with dead people: Lisa Marie Presley croons with Elvis; Janet Jackson jams with Michael; and The Beatles reunited to record “Free as a Bird.” It turns out you don’t need a necromancer to communicate with the dead. You just need a decent producer.

11. “I'm Me” (Lil Wayne)

The Song That Won 8 Gold Medals
Back in 2008, Michael Phelps was the king of Beijing, setting the record for the most gold medals won at any Olympics. What was his secret? His 10,000-calorie-a-day diet? His flipperlike hands? Or perhaps ... Lil Wayne? Before each race, Phelps would tune out the world and tune into his music, removing his iPod earbuds seconds before diving in. One Israeli doctor even went so far as to accuse him of doping because music so enhanced his performance. On The Today Show, Phelps shared that Lil Wayne’s “I’m Me” had a special place in his Olympic playlist. It’s easy to see how the lyrics “There ain’t nothin’ gonna stop me, so just envy it” might resonate with a young man about to race his way into sports history.

10. “Never Gonna Give You Up” (Rick Astley)

The Song That Made Every Link a Surprise Party
Rick Astley‘s huge 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up” and its fantastically cheesy music video was meant to live and die in the 1980s, but that’s not what happened, thanks to an Internet prank dubbed “Rickrolling.” Say a coworker emails you a link to a news article or blog. You click on it, but—surprise!—you’re redirected to the video for “Never Gonna Give You Up.” One minute you think you’re about to read a story on health care, the next, a man lip-synching and wiggling in white jeans pops on your screen. The phenomenon began in 2008 on 4chan, but quickly spread across the Internet. Funny, right? Maybe the first dozen times it happens to you. In the last three years, the video has been viewed more than 50 million times.

Watch the Oregon House members Rickroll their colleagues. Explanation here. (OK, here.)

9. “The Drugs Don't Work” (The Verve)

The Saddest Song, According to Science
It’s one thing to write a sad song; it’s another thing to pen a song so sad that it teaches scientists the meaning of melancholy. The verve’s 1997 dirge “The Drugs Don’t Work” is about lead singer Richard Ashcroft’s dad as he lay dying in his hospital bed. It’s so depressing that it may affect people physically. In 2006, Harry Witchel, a physiologist at the University of Bristol in England, examined the body’s response to pop music. Of all the songs he studied, “The Drugs Don’t Work” had the most profound impact, slowing down heart rates and breathing. “It works like the emotional state of sadness,” says Witchel.

8. “Pretty Woman” (2 Live Crew)

The Song That Made it Safe to be Weird Al
Parodies are tricky in the eyes of the law. While the First Amendment protects free speech, it’s not exactly legal (or cool) to copy somebody else’s work.

The boundaries of the law were put to the test in 1989, when the rap group 2 Live Crew revamped “Oh, Pretty Woman,” by Roy Orbison. The late singer’s publisher, Acuff-Rose Music, which had made a fortune licensing the ditty, was not amused by the filthy, expletive-laden rendition. The publisher sued 2 Live Crew, claiming the group had never been given permission to sample the song. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in 2 Live Crew’s favor, ruling that the rap version was so different from the original that the group had essentially created a new product. Consequently, parody artists ranging from Weird Al Yankovic to Lez Zeppelin (the lesbian Led Zep cover band) don’t need to fear the law.

Perhaps the strangest result of the “Oh, Pretty Woman” case lies in Justice David Souter’s opinion. Souter appended the lyrics from 2 Live Crew’s song to his text. Lines like “Big hairy woman, you need to shave your stuff,” now reside in law libraries across the country.

7. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” (The Chicago Bears Shufflin' Crew)

The Song That Gave a Beat to Jock Itch
The 1985-86 season was a good one for Da Bears. The Chicago team not only dominated the National Football league but also kicked off a strange musical revolution. The team was filled with larger than life characters, including cuddly 350-pound rookie lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry and spikey-haired punk quarterback Jim McMahon. So it stood to reason, why not let ‘em rap?

The bravely cheesy “Super Bowl Shuffle” was the first hip-hop video ever created by a sports franchise, and it became a huge hit, receiving endless airtime and sales of more than half a million singles. (It was even nominated for a Grammy!) Sadly, it opened the floodgates wide for every pro sports team to rap, sing, chant, dance, and Auto-Tune their own song, giving rise to regrettable chestnuts like “Get Metsmerized” from the Mets and “Ram It” from the Rams.

6. “Gin and Juice” (Snoop Dogg)

The Song That Kicked off the Prepster Craze
On March 19, 1994, Snoop Dogg appeared on Saturday Night Live to perform his single “Gin and Juice.” Little did he know, he’d be starting a fashion frenzy. The next day, Manhattan stores sold out of the XXL-oversized red, white, and blue Tommy Hilfiger rugby shirt that Snoop wore on TV, and sales of Tommygear rose by $90 million that year. Although there were rumors that Hilfiger was displeased his preppy label had become an urban phenom, he actually courted the new demographic. Hilfiger tweaked his brand to give it a more hip-hop feel, adding brighter covers and giant logos. He even invited rappers Puffy and Coolio to walk the runway during fashion shows. Apparently, Snoop wasn’t the only one with his mind on his money and his money on his mind.

5. “Across the Universe” (The Beatles)

The First Song Aliens Will Hear
About four centuries from now, Beatlemania may spread to a galaxy far, far away. In February 2008, for the first time ever, NASA beamed a song, The Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” directly into deep space through the transmitters of its communications network, with the hope that it will fall upon alien ears. The pop tune should reach the North Star, Polaris, in about 431 years. John Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, characterized the song’s transmission as a significant event: “I see that this is the beginning of the new age in which we will communicate with billions of planets,” she said. Let’s hope no aliens sample the tune—collecting royalties is going to be rough.

4. “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” (Radiohead)

The Song That Killed the Record Labels
Radiohead has been defying expectations and pioneering music trends for more than two decades, but in 2007, they became revolutionaries in the business world, too. With illegal downloading running rampant and CD sales on the decline, Radiohead decided to cut out the record companies, middlemen, and price tags altogether. They let consumers download their seventh studio album, In Rainbows (including their hit single “Jigsaw Falling into Place”), directly from their website, asking fans to pay whatever they wished. Although about one-third of the people who downloaded the album took it for free, buyers forked over an average of about $8. Within a year, the album had sold 3 million copies. And with virtually no distribution fees, it was a huge financial windfall for the band. In the years since, other groups have followed suit, and the power of the record companies has continued to dwindle. Giving it away might just prove to be the sales strategy that saves the music business.

3. “Everybody Hurts” (R.E.M.)

The Song That Eases the Anxious Bovine Mind
Blasting R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” at 5 a.m. might not seem like the best recipe for increased productivity, but it works for cows. Researchers in the United Kingdom have shown that playing slow, melodic songs can reduce bovine stress, prompting cows to produce nearly a half a pint more milk per day than they would without music. Of all the songs the scientists tested, R.E.M.’s ode to empathy led the list of songs that yielded the most milk, especially when played daily from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you are a lonely cow, living in a barn, with your udders constantly being tugged, maybe it helps to know that everybody cries, and everybody hurts, sometimes.

2. “Believe” (Cher)

The Song That Made Singers Obsolete
In 1998, Cher created a monster—or rather, her producer did. Auto-Tune, an audio processing technology that fixes pitch and corrects mistakes in musical performances, had been around for years, but few artists used it to any effect. Producer Mark Taylor’s goal was to make a dance song that would appeal equally to club kids and older fans from Cher’s “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” days. So he took the singer’s distinctive voice and amped it up with Auto-Tune, adding slip-sliding notes and robotic tones. Taylor was afraid Cher would hate the changes, but she dug them. “Believe” was released in 1998 and went on to become one of the most commercially successful singles of all time, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide and later winning a Grammy Award for Best Dance Recording. Auto-Tune is now a ubiquitous part of pop culture; the diverse musical stylings of T-Pain, Kanye West, Katy Perry, Paris Hilton, and Rebecca Black simply couldn’t exist without it. And singers are just one step closer to being completely replaced by robots.

1. “I Love You” (Barney the Dinosaur)

The Song That Makes Bad Guys Tremble

Why is the opening theme from Barney the most powerful song of the last 25 years? Because it made sure the terrorists didn’t win. In the U.S. military detention camp in Guantanamo Bay, there’s a special spot, known as “the Disco,” where interrogators use music to get detainees to talk. Naturally, death metal is on the playlist, and so is Christina Aguilera. But according to The Guardian, the most used song in the military’s arsenal is Barney’s “I Love You.” Interrogators refer to it as “futility music,” which convinces prisoners that it’s pointless to keep their silence. After listening to the song over and over, detainees start to feel that life is meaningless, and that it’s time to give up. It really works—Just ask any parent.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Get a free issue!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONFEDERATE COLONIES, SOUTH OF THE BORDER

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

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

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

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