4 Stories of Everyday Royals

While the masses coo at Kate’s dresses and wink at Harry’s antics, there’s a world of colorful royalty that never makes the tabloids. From a crafty prince who scalps movie tickets for pocket money to a TV-obsessed royal who believes Star Trek can jump-start the economy, these are the new faces of royalty.

1. The Hardest-Working Kings

By Matthew Schneeberger

On a Friday morning in August, during the holy month of Ramadan, Sanwar Ali Shah, 48; his son Sanu Shah, 22; and his brother Dilawar Shah, 50, pack their way into the Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid. It’s not raining, but a monsoon looms near, its thick humidity folded into the warm Kolkata air. Inside the mosque, working-class Muslims stand shoulder-to-shoulder, ready for prayer.

At first glance, Dilawar, Sanwar, and Sanu are indiscernible from their fellow congregants. But as Sanwar walks out, then throws a calloused hand onto the rickshaw he pulls, the people around him know the difference. Over a 10-hour shift, he will pocket 300 rupees ($6). “I work 30 days per month,” he says in Hindi, shaking his head in disbelief. “There are no holidays.”

This crushing grind isn’t uncommon in Kolkata. But Dilawar, Sanwar, and Sanu aren’t like the others filing out of the mosque. Through seven generations, these three can trace a direct lineage back to Tipu Sultan, the legendary 18th-century ruler of Mysore, the man for whom the mosque is named. Of the roughly 15 million people stuffed into the city, these three princes should be surveying their kingdom. Instead, they’re pulling rickshaws.

In India, being related to Tipu Sultan is a mark of distinction, like being a descendant of a more ferocious George Washington. Back in 1782, Tipu took over the leadership of Mysore from his father. The kingdom, centered about 90 miles outside Bangalore, stretched to the southern banks of Kerala and encompassed much of South India. But the timing of his ascent was unfortunate: Tipu gained power just as the British launched an aggressive land grab on the subcontinent. Back then, India wasn’t so much a nation as a loosely stitched heap of principalities and kingdoms. When British eyes turned to Tipu’s territory, he fought a series of dogged wars to protect his land. His ferocity—which famously included rocket attacks against would-be conquer- ors—earned him the nickname “the Tiger of Mysore.”

Although Tipu Sultan died in 1799 during a decisive British victory, his legend had been firmly established long before. Hearing of his valor, Napoleon had once hoped to join forces with Tipu, uniting French and Indian armies against the British. And despite the Muslim leader’s cruel streak toward India’s Hindu and Christian populations, he remains fixed in the popular imagination as one of the nation’s most important freedom fighters. In the years following his death, Tipu Sultan became so revered in South India that the British were uneasy letting his relatives live in the area. Fearing another uprising, the government displaced his extended family—including 12 of his sons— about 1,000 miles northeast to the then capital of the British Raj, Calcutta.

Tipu’s family was stripped of its status, but the British government made concessions to make sure his descendants were taken care of. His family received healthy stipends, which they used to acquire large tracts of property. Some of Tipu’s sons invested well, and their descendants live comfortably—or better.

But Dilawar, Sanwar, and Sanu Shah—descendants of Tipu’s first son—haven’t been as lucky. Two hundred yards from the mosque, along the same stretch of road, Sanwar, his three brothers, an unmarried sister, and their families reside in a ramshackle house. They end their work shifts bone-tired, with just enough money to put food on the table. As Sanwar once told the Indian newspaper the Deccan Herald, “We are ashamed to speak of our past; that we are descendants of the great man makes us shrink further.” But the blood of the Mysore Tiger still flows in their veins, and whatever scars the family bears from this fall from opulence, the Shahs still know how to fight.

Dilawar Shah and his brothers have spent their lives hustling. They’ve scalped movie tickets for spare cash. They’ve biked rickshaws through Kolkata’s gridded streets for 11 hours at a stretch. When the money from the fares wasn’t enough, the brothers carved a cigarette stall into the front of their dilapidated home and put their mom to work. Today, the Shah home also houses a family-run leather upholstery shop, where Sanu stitches colorful leather rickshaw seat covers by hand. The Shahs are the hardest-working royal family in the world, but how did they fall on such hard luck? It starts with their father, the eldest of Tipu’s sons, who insisted on living like a king, even when he couldn’t.

“My father, Akhtar, was an educated, worldly man who could read and write in several Indian and European languages,” says Dilawar. Akhtar never worked, hoping that the family’s regal position would be reinstated after two centuries and that the trusts of the other branches of Tipu Sultan’s family tree would come to his aid. Those cash infusions never came. When the southern Indian state of Karnataka offered to transport the family to rehabilitate them in Mysore, Akhtar refused to leave Kolkata, holding out for a better offer. And when his inheritance slowed to a trickle, he sold off whatever valuable assets he had to maintain his lifestyle.

But in his selfishness, he never schooled his children. In fact, all his children are completely illiterate. “It may be surprising to see us employed in such basic professions, but nothing more was possible,” says Dilawar, who has worked dozens of odd jobs. “Before you can feed the mind, you must feed the stomach. So we were left uneducated.”

If there’s hope for Dilawar and his family, it’s that other branches of Tipu’s family tree have been able to reverse their fortunes relatively recently. On the very same Prince Anwar Shah Road, about midway between the mosque and the Shahs’ run-down home, stands Fort Mysore Towers, a modern apartment complex that dwarfs the surrounding architecture. There, secured behind the compound’s high concrete wall and security guards, Maqbool Alam, 82, who belongs to another of the family’s strands, owns three apartments. Although he’s living comfortably, he explains in the Queen’s English, “Not long ago, we too had financial problems.” His nephew Shahid Alam, 48, who also owns three apartments, agrees. “Money was a major concern. Thankfully, in the late 1990s, we were able to make an agreement with a property developer to demolish the 150-year-old building and raise these towers.”

As secretary of Mysore Family Fateha Fund Wakf Estate (which handles property matters for those shifted from Mysore by the British), Shahid has taken a particular interest in the family’s fortunes. He blames Indian bureaucracy and a painful litigation process for contributing to the disparity among Tipu’s descendants. “So many documents have been filed on our behalf to various minority welfare boards; committees have come from as far as Karnataka to write reports; there are numerous property cases which remain pending—but nothing happens.”

To illustrate his point, Shahid cites a family burial ground located about two miles away. “This plot was active and in use until 1979. That’s when the illegal encroaching began.” By 1985, Shahid says, the eight-acre burial ground had transformed into a slum, overrun by 4,000 squatters and more than 400 shanties. “When we tried to evict them ourselves, the thugs who’d helped settle them threatened us.”

For two decades, Shahid has been formally petitioning various police and government departments to help his relatives. “It’s an untouchable area for the politicians. They get votes in this district from the squatters, and they don’t want to anger them. So they smile in our faces with promises to help.”

While Shahid now has the luxury of worrying about abstract matters like legacy, the Shah family is still focused on more tangible concerns. “Proud of the legacy?” Dilawar asks. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to give my three daughters some education,” a gift his father never gave him. He continues, “Now my only hope is to have my younger two married.”

If history is any indication, this rickshaw-pulling prince will hustle and sweat to pay for those weddings. His family will band together to make it happen. And once they have, Dilawar will look to fulfill his final wish: “I’d love to see Mysore, the ancestral homeland. Just to visit would be nice.”

As for Sanu, 22, he’s focused on earning enough money stitching rickshaw seat covers to start a family. “If I save my salary and work hard, I’ll be able to marry by 30,” he says.

And so instead of lounging in palaces, three princes who should have been born retired instead earn each rupee the hard way, placing calloused hands on the rickshaw’s handlebars, taking a deep breath, then eyeing the crowded streets for the next passenger.

2. King of the Trekkies

With increasing unrest in the Middle East, Jordan’s King Abdullah II has a curious plan to buoy the region’s plummeting tourism sector: Star Trek.

After attending school in America, King Abdullah became an unapologetic fan of the TV series. He even appeared on Star Trek: Voyager as an extra in the 1990s. In 2011, he took his fandom to the next level by securing the funding to create a $1.5 billion Star Trek theme park in the city of Aqaba. While most of that money goes to licensing fees, Abdullah has worked hard to create a sustainable business. The park would need only 480,000 visitors a year to turn a profit—a fraction of what it takes most parks. And instead of trying to compete with the likes of Disney World, which stretches over 30,000 acres in Orlando, he’s content with a measly 183 acres. Wisely, the king isn’t alone in his ven- ture. CBS and Paramount are involved in planning rides. And it will have more than just luxury hotels and Klingon restaurants; the king wants his park to include a healthy dose of Jordanian history and culture too. While jet-setting Trekkies may wonder what that means, they won’t be able to find out until 2014, when the park is scheduled to open.

3. Lost and Found: The Unbelievable Hunt for the Last King of France

The name Balthazar Napoleon de Bourbon sounds French enough. And if you were told the gentleman bearing the name was next in line for the French throne, it might sound reasonable. But staring at a jovial and portly Indian lawyer/farmer from Bhopal, you can see why people are skeptical. While Balthazar always knew he was of French origin—his last name and Catholic faith are an easy giveaway—he had no idea of his royal heritage until Prince Michael of Greece knocked on his front door.

In doing some family research, Prince Michael, who also hails from the Bourbon clan, discovered that a swashbuckling nephew of Henry IV named Jean de Bourbon had worked his way to India. Jean had fled France after killing a nobleman in a duel. But on his journey, he was kidnapped by pirates, sold as a slave, and served in an Ethiopian army before eventually making his way to Goa, India. From there, he met the Mughal king Akbar and served in his royal court. Over generations, Jean de Bourbon’s descendants assimilated into the culture—marrying Indians and abandoning their mother tongue for local dialects. In fact, Balthazar de Bourbon’s command of French is incredibly poor. But since the guillotine put a stop to Louis XVI’s direct line, Balthazar is his closest living relation. Today, this Indian crown prince laughs about his distinctly middle-class lifestyle, dubbing it “Bourbon on the rocks.” But he has a message for the people of France: If they’re ever itching for a return to monarchy, he’s more than willing to warm the throne. Even if he doesn’t speak the language.

4. Taxicab Confession

George Tupou V, the Oxford-educated former king of the Pacific Island nation of Tonga, told The Telegraph, “A London taxi has the right proportions and makes it easy for you to get in and out whilst wearing spurs and a sword.” Laughing, he continued, “I realize that these criteria are not everyday considerations for the ordinary mum and dad.” The king liked his chauffeur-driven, custom-leather-lined cabs so much that he used two of them to cruise the island.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Cult of Prince Philip
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images

For seven decades, Prince Philip has been one of the more colorful figures in Britain's Royal Family, prone to jarring remarks and quips about women, the deaf, and overweight children.

"You're too fat to be an astronaut," he once told a boy sharing his dream of space travel.

British media who delighted in quoting him are still lamenting the 96-year-old's recent retirement from public duties. But the people of the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu are likely to be optimistic he'll now have the time to join them: They worship him as a god and have based a religion on him.

Followers of the Prince Philip Movement, which started in the 1960s, believe that the prince was born to fulfill an ancient prophecy: that the son of an ancient mountain spirit would one day take the form of a pale-skinned man, travel abroad, marry a powerful lady, and eventually return to the island. When villagers saw the prince’s portrait, they felt the spirit in it, and when he visited Vanuatu in 1974, they were convinced.

Chief Jack Naiva, a respected warrior in the culture, greeted the royal yacht and caught sight of Philip on board. "I saw him standing on the deck in his white uniform," Naiva once said. "I knew then that he was the true messiah."

True believers assign large world movements to the machinations of Philip. They once claimed his powers had enabled a black man to become president of the United States and that his "magic" had assisted in helping locate Osama bin Laden. The community has corresponded with Buckingham Palace and even sent Philip a nal-nal, a traditional club for killing pigs, as a token of its appreciation. In return, he sent a portrait in which he’s holding the gift.

Sikor Natuan, the son of the local chief, holds two official portraits of Britain's Prince Philip in front of the chief's hut in the remote village of Yaohnanen on Tanna in Vanuatu.

The picture is now part of a shrine set up in Yaohnanen in Vanuatu that includes other photos and a Union flag. In May 2017, shortly after the Prince announced his retirement, a cyclone threatened the island—and its shrine. But according to Matthew Baylis, an author who has lived with the tribe, the natives didn't see this so much as a cause for concern as they did a harbinger of the prince's arrival so he can bask in their worship.

To date, Prince Philip has not announced any plans to relocate.

A version of this story ran in a 2012 issue of Mental Floss magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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.


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!”


More from mental floss studios