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John Ueland

The 14 Greatest Hoaxes of All Time

Original image
John Ueland

By Adam K. Raymond
Illustrations by John Ueland

Anyone can toilet paper a house or slip a whoopee cushion onto a chair. Pulling off a truly legendary prank is harder. To fool the media, crowds, and even the military, you need patience, planning, and more than a little genius. But when everything comes together into one big victimless laugh, it’s a thing of beauty. Here are history’s greatest hoaxes, each one proof that with effort and a little luck, you can fool a lot of the people, all of the time.

1. How April Fools’ Day Didn’t Get Its Name

As Joseph Boskin would tell you, the origins of April Fools’ are murky. In fact, the Boston University professor and pop culture historian was trying to say just that in a 1983 interview with reporter Fred Bayles. But each time Boskin told Bayles that no one is quite sure how the holiday started, the interviewer pushed him for a more concrete answer. Eventually, the academic got fed up with the aggressive questioning and decided to concoct a story worth printing.

Off the top of his head, Boskin began regaling Bayles with a tale from the days when Constantine ruled Rome. Jesters, he said, petitioned the emperor to allow one of their own the chance to rule for just one day. On April 1, Constantine relented. A jester, King Kugel—Boskin named him for the Jewish pudding dish—took over and proclaimed that April 1 would always serve as 24 hours of silliness.

Boskin later said he made the story so absurd that Bayles would have to catch on. No dice. The AP ran Bayles’s story about King Kugel, and soon Boskin was fielding calls from news outlets across the country. He initially kept up the ruse, but a few weeks later, the truth slipped out during one of his lectures about the media’s willingness to believe rumors. The editor of the school paper was in the class, and the campus Daily Free Press ran a headline declaring “Professor Fools AP.”

Once the truth was out, the AP was predictably embarrassed, but the story has a happy ending. Bayles, no longer an eager reporter, is now a professor of journalism at BU, where he can speak from personal experience about the media’s gullibility.

2. The Birth of the Bathtub!

December 20 gets no respect. On the calendar, it’s just another winter day best known for not being Christmas. But in 1917, writer H. L. Mencken set out to change that. When readers of the New York Evening Mail opened the paper in late December, they found Mencken’s 1,800-word essay “A Neglected Anniversary,” detailing the arrival of the bathtub in the United States. Mencken meticulously cataloged the tub’s rocky debut in 1842, explaining how the bathroom fad had caught on only after Millard Fillmore installed one in the White House. By the 20th century, Mencken explained, the momentous anniversary had fallen into obscurity. “Not a plumber fired a salute,” he lamented. “Not a governor proclaimed a prayer.”

There’s a good reason why. Mencken had made the whole thing up. The humorist figured everyone would see through the ruse, and he later wrote that the article was “harmless fun” meant to distract readers from World War I. “It never occurred to me it would be taken seriously,” he wrote.

But printing the piece in the Evening Mail gave Mencken’s little joke extra credibility, and he was stunned by how the story snowballed. Within a few years, it had been referenced in “learned journals” and cited “on the floor of Congress.” The tale became so pervasive that the Boston Herald ran an article in 1926 debunking it under the headline "The American Public Will Swallow Anything." Three weeks later, the same paper cited Mencken’s bathtub origin tale as fact.

Mencken tried to set the record straight, but his efforts were futile. People were more interested in hearing about President Fillmore’s tub than hearing the truth. Even today, the nugget resurfaces from time to time: In 2008, the story was featured in a Kia ad, which hailed Fillmore as “best remembered as the first president to have a running water bathtub.” Poor guy can’t even be remembered for something he actually did.

3. Sherlock Holmes Finds the Missing Link

Ever since Darwin published On the Origin of Species, scientists have been looking for the missing link—a transitional fossil that would seal the argument for human evolution. In 1912, an amateur geologist and archaeologist named Charles Dawson found it. The skull he pulled from a gravel pit in Piltdown, England, seemed to conclusively fit the part, and the discovery rocked the scientific community. Skeptics claimed the fossil was exactly what it looked like: a human skull cobbled together with an ape jaw to fool gullible scientists. In the ensuing excitement, believers shouted down deniers, and in December 1912, the Geological Society of London hosted a ceremony where Dawson presented his fossil, the Piltdown Man.

The doubters continued doubting until 1917, when researchers discovered a similar fossil nearby. The Piltdown faithful were thrilled: the new find, Piltdown II, seemingly legitimized the old one.

But the Piltdown Man’s scientific legitimacy gradually eroded over the next few decades. Other early human skulls began popping up in China and Africa, and each had an apelike skull with a human jaw: the opposite of the Piltdown combo.

The jig was finally up in 1953. After conducting tests on the skull, anthropologist Joseph Weiner and geologist Kenneth Oakley determined Piltdown Man was no man at all. Rather, he was a combination of man (the skull), orangutan (the jaw), and chimp (the teeth). What’s more, fluorine dating showed that the bones were no more than 100,000 years old, certainly not new but not missing-link ancient. The head looked older only because the hoax’s perpetrator had stained it with iron and chromic acid.

While the hoax was eventually exposed, the prankster behind the caper is still at large. Dawson is the most likely culprit, but literary sleuths have turned their suspicions to another man: Sherlock Holmes’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Not only was Conan Doyle a member of Dawson’s archaeological society and a frequent visitor to the Piltdown site, he hinted in his novel The Lost World that faking bones is no tougher than forging a photograph—the ultimate smoking gun! If only Holmes were on the case.

4. Italy’s Secret Pasta Gardens

Where does spaghetti come from? On April 1, 1957, the BBC news program Panorama tackled the question with a segment about a Swiss town’s robust spaghetti crop, brought on by a warm spring and the disappearance of the spaghetti weevil. “For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real homegrown spaghetti,” anchor Richard Dimbleby said.

Viewers ate it up. On April 2 the BBC was flooded with hundreds of phone calls from people eager to grow their own noodles, then a rare treat for British diners. Keeping the whimsy going, the BBC instructed anyone interested in a pasta-bearing tree to “Place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best.”

5. The World’s Worst Bestseller

Everyone knows you can’t judge a book by its cover. But the aphorism got an extra dose of validity in 1969, when Penelope Ashe, a bored Long Island housewife, wrote the trashy sensation Naked Came the Stranger.

As part of her book tour, Ashe appeared on talk shows and made the bookstore rounds. But Ashe wasn’t what her book jacket claimed. The author was as fictional as the novel she supposedly wrote—and both were the work of Mike McGrady, a Newsday columnist disgusted with the lurid state of the modern bestseller. Instead of complaining, he decided to expose the problem by writing a book of zero redeeming social value and even less literary merit. He enlisted the help of 24 Newsday colleagues, tasking each with a chapter, and instructed them that there should be “an unremitting emphasis on sex.” He also warned that “true excellence in writing will be quickly blue-penciled into oblivion.” Once McGrady had the smutty chapters in hand (which included acrobatic trysts in tollbooths, encounters with progressive rabbis, and cameos by Shetland ponies), he painstakingly edited the prose to make it worse. In 1969, an independent publisher released the first edition of Naked Came the Stranger, with the part of Penelope Ashe played by McGrady’s sister-in-law.

To the journalist’s dismay, his cynical ploy worked. The media was all too fascinated with the salacious daydreams of a “demure housewife” author. And though The New York Times wrote, “In the category of erotic fantasy, this one rates about a C,” the public didn’t mind. By the time McGrady revealed his hoax a few months later, the novel had already moved 20,000 copies. Far from sinking the book’s prospects, the press pushed sales even higher. By the end of the year, there were more than 100,000 copies in print, and the novel had spent 13 weeks on the Times’s bestseller list. As of 2012, the tome had sold nearly 400,000 copies, mostly to readers who were in on the joke. But in 1990, McGrady told Newsday he couldn’t stop thinking about those first sales: “What has always worried me are the 20,000 people who bought it before the hoax was exposed.”

6. Bipedal Beavers, Unicorns, and Other Moon Monsters

Much like submarines, submarine sandwiches, and the U.S. Constitution, the ethics of journalism were still evolving in the early 19th century. One rule that hadn’t totally sunk in yet: Don’t ply your readers with outright fabrications. The newspapers of the day routinely manufactured stories to generate sales, but none was as outrageous as the New York City rag The Sun’s “Great Moon Hoax,” a series of six articles published in 1835 about the discovery of civilization on the moon.

The articles claimed that a British astronomer named John Herschel had used a powerful new telescope to spot plants, unicorns, bipedal beavers, and winged humans there. The articles even went a step further, claiming that our angelic moon brethren collected fruit, built temples from sapphire, and lived in total harmony. The hoax was debunked immediately. Soon after the first installment ran in The Sun, its uptown competition, the New York Herald, slammed the story under the headline "The Astronomical Hoax Explained."

But the American public preferred a universe dotted with angels, unicorns, and bedazzled architecture. The story created such a buzz that papers around the world rushed to reprint it, while a theater company in New York worked out a dramatic staging. Before long, The Sun was making extra coin selling pamphlets of the whole series and lithographic prints that depicted life on the moon. It took five years for the story’s writer, Richard Adams Locke, to finally confess to making it all up. As he wrote in the New World, his intention was to satirize “theological and devotional encroachments upon the legitimate province of science.” But in all this, the thing we can’t believe is that no New York team has embraced the moon beaver as its mascot.

7. A Math Whiz Horse!

Is a hoax still a hoax if the perpetrator doesn’t know it? Wilhelm von Osten would likely say no. At the turn of the 20th century, the German math teacher was determined to prove the intelligence of animals. After trying (and failing) to teach a cat and a bear how to add, he finally found a sufficiently studious beast. With years of training, a horse named Hans could add, subtract, multiply, and read German.

Von Osten held regular displays of his star pupil’s intelligence. Hans would calculate sums and convert fractions by tapping a hoof to indicate numbers. He became a national sensation, made headlines in the United States, and earned the nickname Clever Hans. To prove that the horse’s skills were real, Von Osten allowed a group of experts to examine his equine genius. They found nothing fishy, and Germany embraced Hans as a marvel until psychology student Oskar Pfungst came along.

Unsatisfied with the work of the experts, Pfungst examined Hans and figured out how the horse was doing its calculator act. Von Osten was sending him subconscious signals. Each time Hans was presented with a math question, he’d tap away until a subtle cue on his owner’s face told him to stop. The cues were so subtle that Von Osten didn’t even know he was giving them. Indeed, the horse got problems right only when they were simple enough for Von Osten to solve, and his percentages plummeted when he wasn’t allowed to face his master. When Pfungst exposed the truth, Von Osten denied it, insisting that Hans really was clever, and he continued to parade his horse before happy crowds. Today, animal psychologists know to write off these cues as the “Clever Hans effect.”

8. The Supergroup That Never Got To Rock

Music fans got exciting news in 1969 when Rolling Stone reviewed the first album by the Masked Marauders, a supergroup featuring Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney. Due to legal issues with their respective labels, the stars’ names wouldn’t appear on the album cover, but the review extolled the virtues of Dylan’s new “deep bass voice” and the record’s 18-minute cover songs. One of the album’s highlights was an extended jam between bass guitar and piano, with Paul McCartney playing both parts! The writer earnestly concluded, “It can truly be said that this album is more than a way of life; it is life.” For anyone paying attention, the absurd details added up to a clear hoax. The man behind the gag, editor Greil Marcus, was fed up with the supergroup trend and figured that if he peppered his piece with enough fabrication, readers would pick up on the joke.

They didn’t. After reading the review, fans were desperate to get their hands on the Masked Marauders album. Rather than fess up, Marcus dug in his heels and took his prank to the next level. He recruited an obscure San Francisco band to record a spoof album, then scored a distribution deal with Warner Bros. After a little radio promotion, the Masked Marauders’ self-titled debut sold 100,000 copies. For its part, Warner Bros. decided to let fans in on the joke after they bought the album. Each sleeve included the Rolling Stone review along with liner notes that read, “In a world of sham, the Masked Marauders, bless their hearts, are the genuine article.”

9. Virginia Woolf Ships Out

Before Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster were literary titans and before John Maynard Keynes was the father of modern economics, they were part of a crowd of friends that informally called themselves the Bloomsbury Group. Comprising writers, artists, and thinkers, the group basically functioned as a fraternity for geniuses. So it’s fitting that the group’s lasting legacy is a piece of tomfoolery.

In 1910, the HMS Dreadnought was the fiercest, strongest ship in the Royal Navy. To the poet William Horace de Vere Cole, it seemed like the perfect place for the Bloomsbury Group to stage a high-concept prank. Cole, Woolf, her brother Adrian Stephen, and three pals decided to sneak aboard the Dreadnought, disguised as the emperor of Abyssinia and his entourage. Why risk the wrath of the Royal Navy? Because it was funny! The group sent a phony telegram to the ship’s commander, letting him know that a delegation was en route, then they simply showed up at the ship.

Amazingly, it worked. Dressed in caftans, turbans, and gold chains and with their faces painted black, the “Abyssinians” were welcomed aboard the Dreadnought with an honor guard, a red carpet, and a naval band. Despite the intentionally amateurish costumes, including at least one moustache that began falling off in the rain, the Abyssinians stayed in character for the entire tour. When they spoke, it was either to exclaim “Bunga, bunga!” in excitement or ramble in an invented language of Latin, Swahili, and gobbledygook. At one point, they were forced to decline a meal, relaying through Stephen, who was acting as translator, that the food had not been prepared to their specifications. In reality, they didn’t eat because they were afraid their makeup would come off.

The tour ended without the crew suspecting a thing. But then someone called reporters. British papers had a field day with the story. Sailors were heckled with cries of “Bunga, bunga” in the streets, and King Edward himself made his displeasure with the incident known. In the face of such humiliation, the navy was forced to take action. According to contemporary accounts, the navy got its revenge by caning two of the male hoaxers. Woolf was spared the lash because she was a woman, even though a lady’s mere presence on the ship was one of the greatest sources of the navy’s embarrassment.
Eventually, though, the Royal Navy developed a sense of humor about the incident. When the Dreadnought rammed and sank a German submarine during World War I, its crew received a congratulatory telegram from superiors. The text? “BUNGA BUNGA.”

10. A Bordello of Barks

Joey Skaggs is a professional prankster who plays the media like his instrument. He’s made waves posing as an outraged gypsy hell-bent on renaming the gypsy moth. He launched Walk Right!—a fictional group dedicated to enforcing proper walking etiquette through militant tactics. But perhaps the best illustration of his life’s work is the brothel for dogs that he opened in 1976. The prank started when Skaggs ran an ad in The Village Voice offering dog owners a chance to buy their pets a night with alluring companions, including Fifi, the French poodle. To Skaggs’s surprise, he began getting calls from people wanting to drop $50 for his service.

It didn’t take much for the media to bite, and when reporters showed up with questions, Skaggs reeled them in by staging a night at his “cathouse for dogs.” The stunt worked; TV stations issued breathless reports of the wanton acts of canine carnality. The ASPCA launched an investigation, a veterinarian publicly condemned the brothel, and the New York Health Department raised concerns about Skaggs’s licensing.

Skaggs eventually admitted the whole thing was a goof, but not everyone believed him. To this day, a television producer for WABC New York argues that the brothel was real and that Skaggs’s hoax claims are just a clumsy attempt to cover his trail. Of course, WABC has good reason to insist that Skaggs was running a genuine poodle prostitution ring: The station won an Emmy for its coverage of the story.

11. MIT Blows Up Harvard!

MIT students derive great pleasure from tormenting their rivals at Harvard. Our favorite prank of theirs occurred during the 1982 Harvard-Yale football game when a weather balloon emblazoned with the letters “MIT” began emerging from the ground near the 50-yard line. In the preceding days, a group of MIT students had snuck into Harvard Stadium and wired a vacuum motor to blow air into the balloon until it exploded, proving once again why you don’t mess with engineers.

12. Greasing the Wheels

Back in the late 19th century, college teams took trains to get to road games, and Auburn took full advantage of the situation. For a few seasons, students ran grease along the train tracks before Georgia Tech games, making it impossible for the train to stop anywhere near the station. Year after year, the poor football team ended up lugging its gear a number of miles back to the station, giving the players more of a warm-up than they bargained for and tilting the games in Auburn’s favor.

13. Card Talk

Tricking opposing fans into holding up placards that spell out a hidden message is a prank older than time. It was perfected with the Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961, during which students altered the placards given to University of Washington fans so that the giant banner they formed read “Caltech” on live television. The math and science school, which sits just a few miles from the Rose Bowl, wasn’t even involved in the game.

14. The Elusive Northwest Tree-Dwelling Octopus

According to the species’s official website, the Pacific Northwest tree octopus is native to the rainforests of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula. It spends most of its time frolicking on treetops and snacking on frogs and rodents. But today, the arboreal cephalopod faces extinction thanks to rampant predation by the Sasquatch.

That last detail gives away the joke to most people. But not everyone is so discerning. The octopus’s meticulous creator—known online as Lyle Zapato—doesn’t just throw hoaxes onto the web—he brilliantly links back to dozens of external sites listing everything from short stories about tree octopuses to videos of a baby tree octopus hatching to recipes for cooking them. And he throws in just enough legitimate links to throw readers off his scent. In fact, every statement is laboriously cross-referenced; most Wikipedia pages would be lucky to have this many sources.

Taken together, Zapato’s labyrinth of sites can trick even savvy web surfers into thinking this tree-dwelling octopus exists. A 2006 study by the University of Connecticut showed that 25 out of 25 web-proficient middle-schoolers fell for the hoax. Even when researchers told them that tree octopuses don’t exist, the students couldn’t identify the clues on the site to prove that it wasn’t factual. The plight of the Pacific Northwest tree octopus is just one of Zapato’s many causes; he maintains an elaborate site dedicated to promoting the Bureau of Sasquatch Affairs and one that alleges that the nation of Belgium doesn’t exist (the deceptive branding of Belgian waffles fits into his conspiracy theory). Of course, whether you look at it as art or entertainment, Zapato’s handiwork is a reminder not to believe everything you read on the Internet.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

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John Ueland
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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!”

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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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