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16 Obviously Insane Things We’ll Never Do Again

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By Tim Murphy

Everyone knows you don’t fly a kite in a thunderstorm. But until Ben Franklin was boneheaded enough to try, we didn’t have electricity. We asked 16 of our favorite artists, authors, and astronauts to tell us about something terrifying and thrilling that they’d (mostly) never do again. Here are the lessons they learned in the strangest ways possible.

LESSON 1: Go all in—or at least up to your armpit.

Mary Roach, author of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

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Many years ago, I heard tell of a cow at Rutgers University with a window in its side. I imagined being able to pull up a stool and watch digestion in the same way you can sit in front of a washing machine and, if that’s your thing, watch your clothes go around. When I was working on Gulp, I felt I needed to do this. It turns out that several agriculture schools have “fistulated cows,” including a branch of the University of California near my home.

The fistula (an unnatural bodily tunnel) is made by cutting, under topical anesthetic, a small circle in the hide and the rumen below it. (The rumen is the biggest of the cow’s stomachs.) The perimeters of these two openings are stitched together to make one, which is then outfitted with a clear plastic stopper. It’s more like an earlobe plug than a window. The hole lets researchers and students test different feeds by putting them in a mesh bag that is pushed in and pulled out at intervals to see how digestion is coming along.

My host, Ed DePeters, handed me a plastic veterinary sleeve and told me to stand to one side of the opening. If a fistulated cow coughs, digesta blows out the hole. (Cows can also fart through the fistula, however I wasn’t graced by such an event.) There are photos of me up to my armpit in the rumen of a cow. She appears unmoved. I look like I’ve seen God. The rumen—20 gallons deep—pushed and squeezed so powerfully that I gave thought to broken bones. It felt more industrial than biological, like I’d stuck my arm into a fermentation vat with an automated mixing paddle at the bottom, which I basically had. We think of the stomach as some floppy, passive sack, but that’s not at all how it goes in there.

Aside from the smell, it wasn’t especially repulsive. In my experience, amazement trumps disgust. And the stomach of a cow—of anything, I’m guessing—is flat-out amazing.

LESSON 2: Don’t let knowledge stop adventure.

Andrew Carroll, author of Here Is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History

Wesley Allsbrook

During a trip to all 50 states in search of little-known historic sites, I took an invitation from a tour guide named Jimmy Ogle in Memphis to explore the storm drains beneath the city. In 1880, Memphis became the first major municipality to create “a separated sewer system,” which entailed two pipe systems—one for storm water runoff and the other for the nasty stuff. The designer was George Waring Jr., the same engineer who transformed an 800-acre section of Manhattan wetlands into what became Central Park.

Jimmy had trekked through the massive drains only a few times before, using a map from 1919 to guide his way. Before embarking on his first foray, which he did alone, he left a copy of his intended route on his desk with a note saying “Open This Monday”—meaning “If I’m not back by now, here’s where you might find my body.”

By the time Jimmy took me, he had a little more experience. He led me to an opening into one of the main tunnels and then flicked on his small flashlight. We began sloshing through the ankle-deep water, passing architecturally stunning “chambers” with stone arches and gushing waterfalls flowing over exquisite brickwork. The trickling of water and the occasional boom of a truck’s wheels overhead were the only noises that broke the silence. The experience was exhilarating, and we covered several miles in one afternoon.

The next day, during a meeting with one of the city’s sewage maintenance employees, I told him proudly of my excursion. He was aghast. “You did what?” He went on to list the things that could have killed me: pockets of odorless methane, poisonous snakes, flash floods, infestations of lethal brown recluse spiders. I had no idea how close to certain death I’d come. When I mentioned all of this to Jimmy, he laughed it off. I admired his courage and am happy that there are people willing to venture into these dark and obscure places. I’m happier still that I’m not one of them.

LESSON 3: Pick a peck of perspective.

John Collins, Artistic Director of Elevator Repair Service Theater

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When I was 14, my mother insisted that my cousin and I take a summer job working in a tobacco field, picking tobacco. She’d decided that this farmer, her best friend’s father and someone she had looked up to since childhood, needed to see that we were capable of hard work. We were the oldest and whitest kids in the field. The work is harsh: You walk the long rows stooped over, picking a few leaves from the bottom of each stalk until you’ve got too many to carry. They’re covered with sticky tar and have a powerful odor. After one long row, I gulped water, threw up, and nearly fell over. We lasted a week. Our short tenure as tobacco “croppers” may or may not have proved anything to the farmer, but that exhausting work in the early morning hours of unbearably hot Georgia sun stuck with me. One of the younger kids, who recognized me from school, said, “You’re not used to this are you, John?” I wasn’t then, and I’m not now, but that week will always keep the not-quite-so-backbreaking work of directing plays in perspective.

LESSON 4: Save room for dessert.

Andrew Zimmern, creator and host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods

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I was shooting an episode of Bizarre Foods in India and wrangled an invite to a dinner party at the home of fashion guru Rohit Bal. Dinner promised to be intriguing: a who’s who of Indian nightlife and culture. When I arrived, no one was in the kitchen and all the furniture was gone from the living room. Turns out, all the cooking had been happening on the roof for two days, and we were going to be sitting on the floor, eating off small trays on pedestals placed before us. This was a royal wazwan, a formal banquet from Kashmir. That meant 36 courses, cooked by a licensed wazwan master chef.

We sat in pairs around the room, and the trays, filled with side dishes and rice, were placed before us. As I was trying to figure out how to sit, out came the seekh kababs (mutton flavored with a spice mixture). We ate tabak maaz (twice-cooked lamb ribs), platters of safed murgh (a roasted chicken with a milk sauce), two types of zafrani murgh (chicken with saffron).

Course after course arrived in an endless procession, all designed to showcase different lamb preparations using the whole animal. Over 30 cooks prepared this meal, which traditionally ends with the gushtaba (meatballs cooked in a spicy yogurt gravy). But after five full hours of eating—34 courses—I made a break for it. I was finished. Complet-o. History. Dead. I ran for the door. No one stopped me. They were all too deep in a food coma to notice.

The truth is, though, if I’d known there were just two courses left, I’d have stuck around, just to say I finished the meal.

LESSON 5: Look before you take a giant leap for mankind.

Leroy Chiao, former NASA astronaut

NASA

As an astronaut, I flew four space missions over my 15-year career, including serving as the commander of the International Space Station. I spent nearly 230 days in space and performed six spacewalks. Knowing this, my most horrifying and exhilarating near-death experience might surprise you.

It happened back in 1990, just days after I’d received the phone call informing me that I’d been selected to be a NASA astronaut. I couldn’t imagine a more exciting time. I was going to get the chance to realize my boyhood dream! I was standing on a busy street corner in San Francisco at the edge of the curb. The light turned green. The walk symbol lit up.

I sensed that something wasn’t right and paused for just a moment. As I started to look to the left, a double Muni bus passed. It was traveling so fast that my impression of it was a blur, and the mirror missed my head by mere inches. Had I even taken a half-step off the curb, the mirror would have struck me, and it would have been fatal. Selected to be an astronaut and then hit by a bus. How ironic would that have been?

LESSON 6: Keep on rolling.

Gina Kolata, New York Times senior writer and author of Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss—and the Myths and Realities of Dieting

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My friend and workout partner, Jen, wanted to do a century (100-mile) bike ride, so Jen, my husband, and I trained for months. Finally, the day came. About 10 miles in, Jen was leading when a slow rider veered into her path. She swerved to miss him. My husband, riding inches from her back wheel, swerved to avoid hitting her. I, meanwhile, was busy staring at our speed on my bike computer and did not react fast enough. I tried to swerve but hit my husband’s wheel and crashed. My shoulder hurt pretty badly, but since it seemed to hurt just as much if I sat still as if I got on my bike and rode, I decided I might as well ride. I could not stand on the pedals—it hurt too much to straighten my arm. And I could not lead—it hurt too much to put out that kind of intense effort. But we finished the ride. We didn’t meet our time goal, but we weren’t that far off.

The next day, I saw a doctor. My collarbone was broken. It was a classic cycling injury. What did I learn? Some would say I learned that I am an idiot. But I think I learned that it really is possible to suppress pain. And I learned that a little denial may not be all that bad. After all, the doctor said the extra 90 miles hadn’t made my collarbone any worse, and my friend got to do the century she’d dreamed of!

LESSON 7: Think twice before gifting a grenade.

Tracy Ross, contributing editor, Backpacker magazine, and author of The Source of All Things

Thinkstock

At first, I didn’t understand why security in the Fairbanks, Alaska, airport had stopped me. They weren’t going to find anything strange in my backpack. Then I remembered the bullets. I’d been out “hunting” wolves (i.e., observing a crazy trapper hunter) on assignment for Backpacker and had completely forgotten about the shotgun shell casings that I’d saved as a souvenir. Security pulled out the shells and then asked if I had anything else I wanted to reveal. It seemed wisest to tell them about the two deactivated grenades that I’d bought for my 8- and 9-year-old sons at the Fairbanks Army-Navy store. The grenades were buried in my checked bag, beneath 10 pounds of moose hot dogs the trapper’s wife had given me. I almost missed my flight while they dragged the bag off the conveyor belt. I pictured myself calling home to tell the boys that their mother wasn’t coming home on time because she’d gotten caught hiding military weaponry in “moose tubes.”

I’ve taken away two lessons from this. I’ve scaled back bringing weapons home to my kids as souvenirs. And I check every pocket before travel.

LESSON 8: Do the shot. Even the snake bile shot.

Zane Lamprey, host of Drinking Made Easy

Getty Images

In Taipei, Taiwan, I visited the Huaxi Street Night Market, also known as “Snake Alley.” From the outside it appears to be a traditional market. Once inside it’s evident how it got its name. Lining the corridor are vendors peddling live snakes, snake meat, and various snake products. I passed them all to reach a nondescript restaurant in the back. A table was prepared in my honor, set with glasses filled with kaoliang (a local spirit) infused with snake bits. Some traditional Taiwanese believe that snakes possess healing and rejuvenating properties. And because a snake is one of the most phallic-looking of all animals and male snakes have not one but two penises, consuming their essence is thought to make you a more formidable lover.

On its own, kaoliang tastes like rum. Kaoliang mixed with snake bits tastes like roadkill. I downed four shots—flavored with snake bile, snake venom, snake blood, and snake penis, pausing briefly to take in the taste. Each shot was worse than the last—and harder to get down. I saved the genitalia-infused cocktail for the end. I threw it back and managed to keep it down. I’d faced down the challenge: The terrible, horrible, nauseating shots were finally gone. And in their place? A story that only gets better every time I tell it. 

LESSON 9: Fear the tourists.

Arianne Cohen, author of The Tall Book: A Celebration of Life From On High

Thinkstock

One time, on a whim, I decided to launch a day-tour company in Cambodia. Sassy day tours featuring local innovators. This seemed like a good idea because I was failing at writing a monster of a book, and when writing’s not working out, pretty much anything seems like a good idea. Particularly if it involves not writing. I had once worked as a newspaper reporter in Cambodia and was thrilled to find an outlet for my extensive knowledge of the Khmer language. My college friend wanted to do it with me. Perfect.

We spent six months on endless conference calls parsing the market, designing the tours, analyzing international tax law, hiring a logo designer, reading piles of tourism books, launching the website, and plotting our empire expansion. Finally, we arrived in Phnom Penh and, within the week, ran a series of free practice tours in 100-degree heat. It was then that I learned that I do not like tourists. Particularly the ones that ask questions like “Will there be shopping on this tour?” and “I know that we just went to the bathroom three minutes ago and are going again in a half hour, but can I go now? To an American-style one?” and “Can you talk into my phone and say ‘Hi how are you’ in Khmer to my boyfriend in L.A.? He doesn’t believe me.” I couldn’t hang with these people for a day, let alone a decade. And just like that, my career plan of building a business serving 10,000 tourists a year was shattered. Never did a quiet room and my monster book look so appealing!

LESSON 10: Avoid actual Shark Week.

Chas Smith, author of Welcome to Paradise, Now Go to Hell

Thinkstock

My greatest friend and I decided to go surf mainland Yemen. I had heard on the news that Osama bin Laden was from there, looked on a map, and saw miles and miles of coastline. The Indian Ocean makes some of the best waves in the world, but no one had ever surfed mainland Yemen, due to the danger and troubles with access. My friend and I flew into the capital, Sana’a, got a Toyota Landcruiser, and drove four hours to the coastal town of Aden. The waves there were not fantastic. We knew we had to get to Mukalla, two days up the coast. So we drove. And drove.

Just outside of Mukalla the coast turned jagged. We could see the swell stacking up and then we rounded a bend and saw it: a wave breaking perfectly 100 yards out to sea. We stopped, grabbed our boards, and paddled. It’s always nerve-racking paddling into a new wave for the first time. It may be extremely shallow; there may be jellyfish. As we paddled, we smelled dead fish. Yemen is known for sharks, and sharks are one of the biggest nerve-rackers.

The water was murky and weird, but the wave was perfect. We surfed and smiled, but the dead fish stench became overpowering. So did our nervousness. My friend swore he saw a shark fin. We paddled in as quickly as we could.

Back on shore, we suddenly saw decapitated shark heads everywhere. We’d been too distracted to notice them before—they looked up at us with glassy, still, angry eyes. Then, just up the beach we saw a fish canning factory. It was the cause of the stench. Our minds began to process: The factory was chumming the water with fishy guts! We should have had our legs and arms chewed off. We looked at each other and did not surf again—until the next day. It really was a perfect wave.

LESSON 11: Say oui to a one-way ticket.

Dan Savage, “Savage Love" sex columnist for Seattle's The Strange and author of Skipping Towards Gomorrah and The Commitment

Thinkstock

When I was in my early twenties, I bought a one-way plane ticket to Europe. I didn't have a job lined up and didn't have enough money to buy a return ticket, so I had to find work. I had a temporary work permit, so I didn't have to work illegally, but there was no guarantee that I wouldn't run out of money before I found a job … which is exactly what happened. I did find a job eventually—waiting tables at an "American-style" restaurant in London—and didn't wind up living on the streets and/or turning tricks at Kings Cross Station. I couldn't do this now, of course, because I have a job and a family. But if I could go back in time and do it again, if I could experience living on my own in a big city in a foreign country, I would do it in a heartbeat. I learned how capable I was—and that I didn't need anyone to find my way, to find a place, to land a job, and make my way in the world.

LESSON 12: Dream as though you’ll live forever, but first make sure you’ll last the night.

E.B. Hudspeth, author of The Resurrectionist: The Lost Work of Dr. Spencer Black

I woke up, and I was being strangled in my bed. Each breath was a struggle; I felt light-headed and weird. All I could do was roll onto the floor and crawl forward, gasping, as if I was trying to escape from my own tomb.

And then...air. I pushed my head through the plastic sheeting that surrounded my sleeping area and gulped the freezing, stinging, wonderful air.

I'd always had fantasies of dying heroically, but what had happened was this: As a young and poor artist, I rented a detached one-car garage in Colorado and used it as both an apartment and a studio-space. It had no water or plumbing, and no heat. So I bought a kerosene heater, and sealed a small floor-to-ceiling space around my bed with plastic sheeting to trap the heat. I realize, now, that sleeping in an enclosed space with an oxygen-consuming device is a formula for asphyxiation. I've also come to expect that my eventual demise will probably be an embarrassing event involving something innocuous, like brushing my teeth or checking email. Should we all spend some part of our lives young and poor? I think so, because you'll appreciate what you have, and won't miss what you've lost. But most people can probably do it without cutting off their oxygen supply.

LESSON 13: Cash is king…but all kings need trusted advisors.

Brooke Berman, author of No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments

Thinkstock

At 24, I thought it virtuous to have no debt and thus, no credit cards.  I paid cash—my waitressing tips—for a standby voucher from one of those dirt cheap travel operations and tried to use it to fly to LA the week of the World Cup finals.  Stranded at JFK and relatively clueless, I bonded with some guy who suggested we fly to San Francisco together—which, using our vouchers, we did. I learned 1) sometimes the easy way is really the right way. 2) Not all debt is bad.  3) Don't invite strangers up to your apartment even if you plan to travel cross-country with them, and then, probably best not to travel with the person you've just met in the airport.  It was all very innocent, but it could have gone so very wrong.

LESSON 14: Try seeing the world through someone else’s gunsight.

Amy Sohn, author of the novels Motherland and Prospect Park West

Thinkstock

For a documentary television pilot about American families, I spent a few days with a militia family—the father was in the Michigan Militia—near Detroit. The house was filled with unlocked guns and filled with eight children and adolescents, and we visited a gun range near their home in the middle of a blizzard.  At the range, I shot a Glock and a Daewoo K1 submachine gun.  For about three seconds, holding the Glock, I felt like I was in an action film. But almost immediately I realized there was something very wrong with the fact that someone like me was allowed to shoot a Glock.  The Daewoo was even more terrifying.  When you fire a semi or automatic weapon you realize how ridiculous it is that ordinary Americans can own and use these guns, whose only purpose is to kill many, many people as quickly as possible.

LESSON 15: Denny’s will never let you down.

Pam MacKinnon, Broadway director of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Clybourne Park


Getty Images

In 1993, I drove across the country alone with all my belongings packed into a 13-year-old Honda Civic. One day I drove 22 hours from outside Yellowstone to Madison, Wisconsin with two breaks for meals. All because I had a free bed waiting for me there.  I arrived in the city limits, shaky and cold, with a dragging muffler at 6 a.m. unable to drive faster than 40 miles an hour for the last leg, as the world seemed too fast and scared me. I pulled into a Denny's and waited until around 8 a.m., when I called the friend of a friend, whom I had never met, from a pay phone to pick me up. We returned for my car after a several-hours nap.  Years later I would shake getting into the driver's seat of a car for a trip of more than a couple hours. I was afraid I might trick myself into another marathon.

LESSON 16: What doesn’t kill you makes a great story.

Kurt Tommy, Senior News Editor & Film Critic, Pajiba.com, and Liesl Tommy, theatre director and Sundance Theater Institute artistic associate

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Several years ago, we were visiting our parents in South Africa and we went to one of the most beautiful places on earth, Tsitsikamma National Park. While we were there we were crossing a rope bridge that extends across what’s known as Storm’s River, when we were seized by the kind of madness that only occurs when we’re together. We impulsively scaled the rope railings, and leaped into the ocean below. It was a bracing, breathless affair that scared our poor mother half to death, and to this day remains one of the most invigorating … and stupidest things we’ve ever done (and that's a long-ass list). It was only later, when we were regaling our cousins with our tale of exhilaration and bravery, that we realized just how stupid. My cousins sat there, gaping at us, until one of them said, “you know … you know that they take people shark cage diving there, right?”

No. No, we did not know that. Suffice it to say that when we next go hiking over the mouth of a river which feeds into shark infested South African waters, perhaps we'll think and look before we leap!

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here.

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John Ueland
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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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