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Cover Art by Nicole McEvoy

The 25 Most Powerful Websites

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Cover Art by Nicole McEvoy

By Adrian Chen

Sure, with its sprawling server farms, Google is probably the web’s most powerful entity. And everyone knows about the influence of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia. But to us, powerful means changing what we eat, how we vote, and the ways we kill time at the office. In no particular order, here are the 25 Most Powerful Websites.

1. TROJAN ROOM COFFEEPOT: The Steamiest Webcam Ever

The first successful webcam wasn’t sexy, funny, or even all that interesting. It was a low-resolution camera pointed at a coffeemaker. In 1991, computer scientists at the University of Cambridge were tired of trekking upstairs for a cup of Joe only to find the coffeepot outside the Trojan Room lab empty. They set up a live video feed connected to a local network. When they made the page public, in 1993, it became Internet famous. As traffic swelled, the lab even added a lamp so international visitors could peek in after hours.

By luring millions of visitors, the coffeepot proved that anything can be hypnotic on the web. That opened the floodgates for slightly more engaging live streams: from the voyeuristic JenniCam to feeds of live panda cubs. But by 2001, the coffeepot’s 15 minutes had long passed. Researchers packed up the camera and moved to a new facility. The pot? It sold for $2,300.

2. Amazon: Serving the New Web Order

Amazon has changed the way Americans shop, but its most powerful offering doesn’t come in a box. Over the past few years, Amazon has quietly laid the groundwork for a cloud-computing takeover that could be even more far-reaching.

In 2006, Amazon started leasing out storage space on its massive server farms, saving companies the hassle of setting up expensive in-house systems. Amazon Web Services (AWS), as it’s known, helps some of the world’s biggest businesses run. Netflix uses it to stream billions of hours of video to consumers, while banks rely on AWS to crunch numbers from their massive databases. As Borders can tell you, don’t bet against Amazon’s ability to completely transform an industry.

3. Women in Refrigerators: Savior of Superheroines

In 1999, writer Gail Simone noticed an unsettling trend in comic books: a disproportionate number of female superheroes were being killed, maimed, or depowered, compared with their male counterparts. So she created Women in Refrigerators, a database of heroines who had met untimely demises. The name comes from the Green Lantern’s girlfriend, who was stuffed into a fridge after being murdered by one of his nemeses.

Simone did more than just chronicle these grisly ends. By giving writers the opportunity to respond, she created an important forum for discussing sexism in the art form. The site opened the doors to similar critiques about the disproportionate attacks on gay and lesbian characters. Soon, the phrase “women in refrigerators” became shorthand for problematic depictions of women across pop culture. It also helped Simone become part of the solution. In 2007, she became the first female writer to helm DC’s Wonder Woman in the title’s 66-year history.

4. WebMD: Spawn of a New Affliction

Before the Internet, getting a medical diagnosis required consulting a trained professional. That changed in 1996, when WebMD debuted the Symptom Checker, a catalog of conditions that nervous web browsers could peruse for hours. The problem, of course, is that self-diagnosis isn’t quite the same as visiting someone who owns a stethoscope. As a result, the site fomented a brand-new malady: cyberchondria—Internet-induced hypochondria.

Just how needlessly alarming can the web be? Fewer than 1 in 50,000 people have a brain tumor, but according Psychology Today, enter the word headache into a search engine and you’ll find that 25 percent of the results point to brain tumors as a probable cause. That explains why a 2008 study confirmed that 40 percent of people who use the web to self-diagnose end up suffering increased anxiety.

What makes WebMD stand out from the pack? As The New York Times noted, its click-friendly alarmist tone makes it chum for cyberchondriacs. And the strategy pays—in 2010, the site generated more than $500 million in advertising profit. Great for WebMD. For the sufferer of the common cold? Not so much.

5. Islendingabok: Cousin-Kissing Prevention

As a tiny island nation with just 300,000 residents, Iceland’s gene pool is dangerously shallow; discovering that your hot date is a not-too-distant cousin is a distinct possibility. In 1997, a team that included deCODE Genetics solved the problem with the site Islendingabok.

Citizens enter a potential mate’s name into the Book of Icelanders, and the site parses 1,200 years’ worth of genealogical data to determine how closely related they are. But what if you meet someone at a bar and don’t want to spoil the moment by firing up your laptop? Islendingabok has an app for that. Just tap phones with your prospect, and wait for the all-clear. As the tagline cheerfully advises: “Bump the app before you bump in bed.”

6. Yelp: Where the Peanut Gallery Makes Big Dough

According to a Harvard Business School study, a one-star increase in a restaurant’s Yelp rating boosts the eatery’s profits by five to nine percent.

7. LiveJournal: Keeping Politicians Honest

Russia’s Alexei Navalny can ruin a politician’s career with a single blog post. Known for his bold exposés—including leaking internal documents from crooked state-run companies—Navalny’s incendiary writing helped spark the biggest antigovernment protests Russia has seen in years. Just as the Drudge Report rocked American politics by picking up the Monica Lewinsky scandal before mainstream outlets would touch it, Navalny will do whatever it takes to keep Moscow’s elite honest. What’s surprising is his weapon of choice: LiveJournal.

In the U.S., the online diary site is best remembered as a cache of bad poetry and Star Trek fan fiction. But in Russia, where the nickname for the site, ZheZhe, doubles as the word for blogging, it’s a vital broadcast system. Thirty-five million people have accounts, including celebrities, politicians, and even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and it’s seen as one of the few places where citizens and journalists can publish without censorship. Unfortunately, all that free speech has hurt Navalny. After four years of rabble-rousing, the government slapped him with trumped-up embezzlement charges, the legality of which is no doubt being debated on LiveJournal.

8. Pets.com: Asserting the Sock Puppet's Cultural Dominance

Pets.com was literally flying high on November 25, 1999. A 36-foot balloon version of the site’s famous sock-puppet dog mascot soared over New York City in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. A few months later, the company would rake in $82.5 million in an initial public offering.

The sock puppet—voiced by Michael Ian Black—cemented its status as a pop culture icon by appearing in a $25 million Super Bowl ad. The puppet was interviewed by People and appeared on Good Morning America. When Pets.com began offering sock puppets, it sold 10,000 in the first week, more than all its pet-related products.

That fact alone should have raised red flags. No ad campaign could fix Pets.com’s unsustainable business model, which required shipping heavy bags of food at huge losses. This strategy led to $62 million in losses in 1999. Despite partnering with Amazon, the site had to be put to sleep in November 2000.

“The only thing I ended up with out of that investment is a sock puppet,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told Vanity Fair. And the rest of the Internet-commerce industry? It learned that the value of having a catchy mascot is second only to having a solid business model. As for the puppet, the critter now serves as the mascot for 1-800-BarNone, a Michigan-based car loan company for drivers with bad credit. BarNone’s slogan: “Everyone deserves a second chance.”

9. Slashdot: Even What Kills You Makes You Stronger

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, long before Reddit unearthed its first meme, Slashdot was the center of the nerd universe. The collection of tech news, opinion, and inside jokes was required reading for geeks, who flocked to any site Slashdot endorsed with a link.

Unfortunately, these plugs were a catch-22 for burgeoning sites. Slashdot’s vast audience was so enthusiastic that it flooded and crashed target sites’ servers. Users even coined the term “Slashdotted” to describe these outages.

Paradoxically, the durability of today’s sites is a direct result of the “Slashdot Effect.” Programmers knew they needed more robust sites to survive Slashdot’s high-volume love, so they invested in improving software, caches, and servers to handle large quantities of traffic, making great websites better and harder to crash.

10. 4Chan: Everything Good and Bad on the Web

You can’t click on too many sites without running into a troll, the folk devils of the Internet who live to spout mean-spirited nonsense. If you want to trace the behavior back to its source, there’s only one place to look: 4chan. When 15-year-old Christopher “Moot” Poole (pictured) started a seemingly innocent anime fan board in 2003, he didn’t realize he was opening the web version of Pandora’s box. 4chan quickly grew into one of the darkest corners of the web thanks to its anarchic “/b/” section, where anonymity gave rise to a culture of bullying and harassment.

But strangely, even as 4chan has grown as a staging ground for flame wars, it’s also been a hive of positivity. The site incubated many of the web’s silliest memes, including Lolcats and Rickrolling. 4chan’s most powerful legacy, however, is the hacktivist collective Anonymous. The group first organized in the mid-2000s to campaign against Scientology, but today the masked hackers often rally around social causes, taking down government websites to protest censorship or hounding animal abusers.

11. Urban Dictionary: Where Jive Turkeys Sway Juries

When college freshman Aaron Peckham launched Urban Dictionary in 1999, he used the site to catalog the ridiculous lingo he and his friends made up. But as people from across the web began contributing and voting on the accuracy of definitions, what began as a goof self-corrected and transformed into a valuable resource.

Today, the crowdsourced database contains more than two million definitions of slang words and phrases—a godsend to less-than-hip parents. (For the record, Mom: “nom: 1) The act of eating. 2) An act of affection.”) But the site’s greatest beneficiary might be the U.S. legal system.

According to The New York Times, courts are increasingly leaning on the online dictionary to define slang. And while it’s both hilarious and uncomfortable to think of lawyers reading elderly juries the site’s definition of twerking—“when a woman slams her bottom on a man’s pelvic area while dancing”—it makes all the difference in cases involving sexual harassment, where decisions often hinge on parsing linguistic intent.

A few more examples of what makes Urban Dictionary a lifesaver:

couch syrup: “The liquor one hides in a couch while pretending to be sober”

hungs: “A shortened way of saying one is hungry”

textretary: “A sidekick who texts for the driver”

almost-quaintance: “A person to whom one has at one point sent a successful social networking friend request”

on blast: “To embarass [sic] someone or to make someone look stupid”

12. CERN: The Mothership

In April 1993, the particle-physics lab CERN changed the digital world forever by launching the world’s first website. It was refreshingly minimalist—actually, it was dreadfully boring—just a straightforward presentation of information. It was the content and the fact that CERN was making it available royalty-free that was revolutionary. The site shared basic technical information about how to code a web page, how to search for information on the web, and the source code for setting up a web server. It also provided instructions for building sites and browsing the web. Like an invasive species, the information spread, and websites began popping up everywhere. By the end of the year, there were 500 sites. Today, more than 630 million make up a huge part of the digital universe as we know it.

13. Snopes: A Myth-Busting Marriage

In a medium where unsubstantiated rumors spread like wildfire, verifying information takes on a special significance. David and Barbara Mikkelson run Snopes, the web’s foremost fact-checking site, from their California home, and they’ve allayed our collective anxiety by debunking some doozies. Thanks to the Mikkelsons’ meticulous research, we are no longer burdened by urban legends like the ones above.

14. Github: The Rosetta Stone of Code

By allowing anyone to contribute lines of code, the open source movement was able to tackle some of computing’s thorniest problems. GitHub, a kind of Facebook for programmers founded in 2008, made open source even more democratic by allowing its 1.3 million members to introduce fixes without having to go through a project manager. Because GitHub catalogs all the iterations of a code, sites like TechCrunch have hailed it as a modern Library of Alexandria, a catalog that beginners and experts can use to better understand coding and develop ever more elegant solutions. And as TechCrunch also notes, GitHub has one distinct advantage over its ancient forebear. Because users write and edit by copying existing patches of code onto their own computers, there’s little danger this incredible resource will be lost to the sands of time.

15. Oh My News: The Site That Elected a President

Back in 2000, South Korean journalist Oh Yeoh-ho was fed up with his country’s mainstream media, so he launched Oh My News. True to its slogan, “Every Citizen Is a Reporter,” his online newspaper allows anyone to submit stories, which are then read and edited by paid staffers. Two years later, Oh My News rose to prominence with its coverage of a story other outlets wouldn’t touch: the deaths of two schoolgirls crushed by a U.S. Army truck. When a user posted a heartfelt plea to protest the deaths, 10,000 Koreans flooded into Seoul’s streets for a massive candlelight vigil. The rally highlighted Oh My News’s power as an organizational tool, and supporters of Roh Moo-hyun, an idealistic presidential candidate, took note. Although Roh had been a dark horse, Oh My News helped him squeak out a win. Roh was so appreciative of his digital army that he snubbed the major media and gave his first postelection interview to the people’s paper.

16. The Pirate Bay: The Site That Launched a Political Party

In 1999, Napster turned any computer into an infinite jukebox. But Metallica couldn’t just be cool about it, and court orders laid the service to rest two years later. For the record industry, the damage was done—the notion that music was something that could be possessed was gone forever.

In Napster’s wake, file-sharing hubs popped up around the world, sparking lawsuits and debates about intellectual property. One of these sites, the Swedish hub Pirate Bay, came to embody the international movement to reform copyright laws through its loose affiliation with the burgeoning political group, also Swedish in origin, the Pirate Party. Founded by tech entrepreuneur Rick Falkvinge, the Pirate Party—which stands chiefly for civil liberties, freedom of information, and copyright reform—quickly spread through Europe. It found particularly strong traction in Germany and Iceland, where this year voters elected three candidates from the Pirate Party to parliament. The party is now organized and campaigning for copyright reform and the free sharing of information in more than 43 countries.

17. Craigslist: Refreshing the Barter Economy

Ask anyone who’s ever desperately needed a roommate, a last-minute concert ticket, or a used ukulele: We would be lost without Craigslist. What started as a Bay Area email list in 1995 has grown into a massive hub of more than 100 million ads a month.

Humans have been trading goods forever, of course, but through the 20th century we had to rely on newspaper classfied ads. That method was time-consuming and relied on a lot of luck and patience (and your hands got grubby from the newsprint). Craigslist revolutionized that equation with convenience, speed, and a much wider draw—all at no cost to most users.

Strangely enough, Craigslist has proved that free can pay. For all its grassroots charm, the site has backing from serious investors, and they’re making serious money. In 2012, the site made $126 million in revenue, primarily from the nominal fees it charges for posting help-wanted ads in certain markets. That’s enough to buy a lot of used coffee tables.

18. The Hunger Site

Saving the world is hard work. Or at least it was until John Breen revolutionized social justice in 1999 by creating an ingenious charity that appealed to lazy do-gooders. All someone had to do was click a button, and, as if by magic, ¼ cup of food would be donated to the United Nations’ World Food Programme.

Breen’s click-to-donate model was wholly original. He sold day-long sponsorships to the site, convincing big-name advertisers to absorb his costs. It was a win-win for everyone—people were fed, companies looked good, and users added a little satisfaction to their days. As the dot-com bubble burst and maintenance rose beyond his capabilities, Breen sold The Hunger Site to a shopping portal, which soon ran out of money. (Today the site is part of CharityUSA.com.) The Hunger Site laid the foundation for a new generation of creative capitalism, inspiring entrepreneurs to find new ways of getting people to do good without having to do much.

19. Million Dollar Homepage

At the other end of the spectrum, Alex Tew needed tuition money, so he did something audacious—he asked for it. In 2005, he started a site, Million Dollar Homepage, sold the pixels to advertisers for a dollar apiece, and in just six months, Tew cleared the million-dollar hurdle. All of which proved that when it comes to crowdsourcing funds, no cause is too selfish.

20. Hampster Dance: Silliness Pays

In 1998, Canadian art student Deidre LaCarte started a friendly competition with a classmate to see who could drive the most traffic to a website. LaCarte offered up Hampster Dance, a page featuring dozens of poorly animated hamsters dancing in an infinite loop to a sped-up version of the Roger Miller song “Whistle Stop.”

LaCarte didn’t know it, but she had unleashed an Internet plague. A remix of “The Hampster Dance Song” charted in countries around the world, and LaCarte’s critters were licensed for a children’s television cartoon. LaCarte’s greatest legacy? Proving Internet popularity is often directly proportional to silliness—an equation that cats and Chuck Norris have ridden to great fame.

21. Sex dot com: The Site Worth Going Into Exile Over

Inspired by classifieds, Match.com founder Gary Kremen, started registering domains like Autos.com and Jobs.com in 1994. Those domains were worth a pretty penny, but during the domain-name gold rush, Sex dot com was El Dorado.

Unfortunately for Kremen, the domain also caught the eye of con man Stephen Michael Cohen. In 1995, Cohen used forged documents and incredible chutzpah to convince a registration company to transfer the domain to him. He quickly outfitted Sex dot com with a slew of porn ads that began amassing millions of dollars.

Kremen sued for control of his domain, but Cohen’s now-deep pockets funded a protracted legal battle. After a five-year fight, Kremen was awarded the domain and a $65 million settlement. But Cohen wasn’t ready to give up his freedom, so he hid out in Mexico until 2005. When Kremen finally got the name back, he sold it for a then-record $14 million. Today, Sex dot com is an X-rated clone of the social bookmarking site Pinterest. The legal system works!

22. Match.com: Made in Heaven

According to a 2012 Stanford study, 22 percent of heterosexual couples met online. And Match claims responsibility for 30 percent of all marriages that began online. That’s 12 engagements or weddings per day—in other words, an awful lot of chicken dancing. Match didn’t rise to the top of the pile without competition, though. Only the strong survive in the online dating business. Just look at these rival sites it dispatched along the way:

WeNeither.com
Attempted to pair off couples by the things they disliked

IrritatedBeingSingle.com
For people with IBS or Crohn’s disease

ClownDating.com
A dating site for Bozos

23. The Internet Archive: Long-Term Memory

The web has a woefully short memory. Links die, codes go bad, and sites are pulled down in an instant. Luckily, Brewster Kahle’s nonprofit Internet Archive tirelessly preserves huge swaths of the web’s history before it vanishes. Kahle first had the idea for cataloging the web while designing the web crawler Alexa Internet. As his spiders indexed the web, he realized he could store all that information. In 2001, he made all of those cached websites available to the public with The Wayback Machine, a massive database of snapshots of millions of websites through time. How powerful is this tool for online researchers? This list wouldn’t have been possible without it.

24. Power Line

From practically the day they sprang into existence, blogs have been denigrated as trivial, inaccurate, and derivative. Untrained writers could never match the accuracy and depth of newspapers and network news. Power Line, a scrappy right-wing blog, turned that perception on its ear when it took down one of old media’s most venerable figures: Dan Rather.

In September 2004, Rather and CBS News aired an explosive story about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. The report used military documents to show that Bush had received preferential treatment and performed poorly while failing to meet his service obligations. Just two months before Bush came up for reelection, the report was a bombshell.

Or it would have been, except the documents weren’t authentic. Power Line cofounder Scott W. Johnson thought something seemed fishy, and, thanks to tips from Power Line readers, it took him only a few hours to expose the critical documents as forgeries. The Internet’s self-taught experts had proved to be more reliable fact-checkers than the traditional elite in CBS’s news department. As the scandal erupted, Rather resigned from CBS, and even stalwarts like Time hailed Power Line’s meticulous work. Score one for new media.

25. Rap Genius: Breaking It Down

Image Credits: Getty Images; Thinkstock; Putin, Roh Moo-Hyun, Dan Rather, Dunk, Fireworks, and Tarzan via Alamy; Richard Dawson via Corbis.

You can learn how to French braid on YouTube, but deciphering the lyrics to hip-hop songs? That was nearly impossible before Rap Genius came along. Started by three Yale alums in 2009, the site has harnessed the knowledge of rap fanatics to create the web’s most exhaustive database of lyric interpretations.

But Rap Genius is no mere Wikipedia of samples; the magic is in the richness of the annotations. Users have filled the site with clear but colorful footnotes backed by links and additional sources, and rap superstars occasionally drop by to spill additional knowledge. Now that the site has proved its value—and nabbed $15 million in venture capital—the founders want to bring the model into the classroom by extending into everything ever written. If Rap Genius can unravel dense lyrics, why can’t it break down legal documents? Or historical speeches? Or the Bible? Silicon Valley’s investors are betting that the Rap Genius model can make sense of any text. We can’t wait for Ghostface Killah to finally explain Ulysses in language we can understand.

See Also:

The 25 Most Powerful Songs of the Past 25 Years
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The 25 Most Powerful TV Shows of the Past 25 Years

Adrian Chen is a senior writer at Gawker. He's also written for Wired and Slate. This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. You can get a free issue here or check out our iPad edition.

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John Ueland
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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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