CLOSE
Original image
Jason Wallis

The Green Movement

Original image
Jason Wallis

He’s written a handful of blockbuster books, launched a pair of robust online communities, and cultivated an incredibly large T-shirt collection. Oh, and he hosts the mental_floss YouTube channel. Here’s how John Green made a generation believe in the power of awesome.

BY JESSICA GROSE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASON WALLIS

It's about 10 minutes into our conversation that John Green starts talking about the meaning of life. “I find it totally unconvincing to argue that everything happens for some discernible reason,” he says. 

He’s describing the seven months he worked as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, and the sentences spill fully formed from his mouth. “We have to grapple with the world as we find it, and we find a world that’s either random or else acts in a way that’s identical to how it would act if it were random.”

At 22, he watched 8-year-olds, who suffered every day of their short lives, die. It was difficult and sobering, but the experience also inspired The Fault in Our Stars, his latest novel. TFiOS (pronounced “Tiffayos” by fans) skyrocketed to the top of the young-adult charts without pandering to type: It’s a love story told by a heroine with stage four thyroid cancer. There are no vampires or mean girls in its pages. 

But TFiOS is just the latest in a long line of Green’s achievements. He’s written four young-adult novels—three of which were simultaneously on the New York Times’ bestseller list. He’s cultivated a blockbuster YouTube channel with five different shows, all either hosted by him or his brother, Hank. He has millions of fans, or “nerdfighters,” as they’re lovingly called—who hang on his every word on Twitter and Tumblr and, of course, in print. And then there’s Brotherhood 2.0—the video experiment that began in 2007 when Green and Hank realized they were talking to each other only once or twice a year. To improve their relationship, they committed to communicating daily via YouTube, enforcing silly penalties when they missed a deadline. Six years in, they’ve not only grown a rabid fan base, they’ve charmingly discussed everything from religion to gay marriage to, well, songs about pants. Today, even celebrities are paying attention. Rapper Lupe Fiasco is addicted to Green’s YouTube history show and likens it to crack. Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch has been caught in photos throwing the nerdfighter gang sign (two Vulcan hand signs placed across one’s chest). Yet Green’s appearance is hardly that of a celebrity. With slightly disheveled sandy hair, wire rim glasses, and a seemingly bottomless closet of polo shirts and tees, the quirky fast talker is like the enthusiastic Apple Genius Bar expert you have a secret crush on.

His guiding mantra—the one he constantly shares with readers—is “Don’t forget to be awesome.” The nerdfighters have not. As of this writing, through the microloan organization Kiva, more than 40,000 of his fans have given $3,148,825 to small-business owners in underfunded parts of the world. Green makes it a point to give back to his nerdfighters too. He personally signed every copy of the 150,000 first-print run of The Fault in Our Stars with a Sharpie, ensuring that anyone who couldn’t make it to one of his cross-country readings still had access to a signed book. 

Of course, it isn’t just nerdfighters Green has touched. Though his most devoted cheerleaders tend to be teenagers, his books have reached millions of people of all ages. I first heard about The Fault in Our Stars from my 60-year-old mother-in-law. Time declared TFiOS the best fiction book of 2012. His fellow YA star author and sometime collaborator Maureen Johnson says she believes Green’s work is popular because “there’s something about him himself that’s coming through, and it’s not particularly sugarcoated.” It might not be shiny and happy all the time, but it is emotionally honest, and people respond to that.

It’s this hyper-contemporary combination of endless curiosity, Internet community engagement, and a do-gooder spirit that has made Green the pied piper of a certain kind of young nerd. Not only can he spin a great yarn, he’s pinpointed the next generation’s sweet spot, somewhere between self-reflection and the desire to do good.

Green comes by his sense of community involvement honestly. He grew up in Orlando, Fla., where his father was state director of the Nature Conservancy, and his mother was a community activist and organizer who worked in low-income neighborhoods. His interest in theology notwithstanding, he wasn’t raised in a religious household. Green, in fact, jokes that his brother has no patience for such “crap.”

Though they weren’t avid churchgoers, the Greens were encouraged to talk about big issues at the dinner table, where they were nightly reminded “what the meaning of life was and what your values should be.” Arguments with his parents were often about philosophy and ethics. “I’m sure it was infuriating for them to have this pseudo-intellectual kid who wasn’t very informed about this stuff that he was preaching about,” he says.

Green’s description of his teen self sounds like one of his characters. The heroes of his books are smart, funny, well-read outsiders, proud of their arcane knowledge. Miles “Pudge” Halter, the narrator of Green’s debut, Looking for Alaska, memorizes famous last words. Colin Singleton, from An Abundance of Katherines, is a math prodigy determined to derive a theorem that will predict the future of any relationship (he’s motivated by the fact that 19 consecutive girls named Katherine have dumped him).

The most fervent John Green fans—ahem, nerdfighters—are outsiders too. They love to read and write and don’t quite fit into the mainstream. The Nerdfighter Ning—a mini social network for diehard John and Hank Green lovers which Hank helped start—has nearly a hundred thousand members and provides a good illustration of the typical superfan. It has large subgroups for writer nerdfighters, nerd nerdfighters (apparently not a redundancy), gay-straight-alliance nerdfighters, and more than one theater geek nerdfighter coven. On Tumblr, a nerdfighter has put up a photograph of John and Hank rocking out like goofballs, overlaid with the text “John and Hank taught me not to care what other people think. Just be yourself. Your best nerdy self.”

What beams through Green’s work, aside from the humor, is his authenticity. In Looking for Alaska, teenage Pudge goes to boarding school in Birmingham, Ala., like Green did. At Indian Springs School, Green was in awe of his fellow students. He loved the atmosphere and the conversations; it’s a large part of why he writes for teens. “There’s this intense kind of almost joy,” Green said, of tackling philosophical issues for the first time. “Maybe we were talking about girls while we were talking about this stuff too, but it gave a certain intellectual charge.”

At Kenyon College, a liberal arts school in central Ohio, Green studied religion with a focus on early Islamic history. “I was interested in becoming an Episcopal priest,” Green remembers. “I don’t know that I thought it through very carefully.” Postcollege, however, he didn’t see many other career options. “It didn’t seem like anyone was hiring someone who had read a lot of Mark Twain. That didn’t seem like a job to me.” 

He got into the University of Chicago Divinity School, but before enrolling, he began working at the children’s hospital. “It was difficult and traumatic,” he says. “I’ve never done anything harder than sitting with a parent as their child died. That happened every day.” When Green talks about his time as a chaplain, a slightly different self comes through. In conversation, he’s still like the online John Green, just dialed down a few notches. “He’s not always that shouty and spinning around in a chair,” Johnson says.

Green skipped divinity school and instead landed as a temp at the review journal Booklist, where he worked for the next six years, an experience that changed him. That seems to be a recurring theme in Green’s professional life. He follows his passions and through hard work, a bit of luck, and a boatload of natural talent manages to succeed beyond his wildest expectations. Around that time, he began writing about his experience at the children’s hospital. 

Green describes this first attempt at a novel as “super embarrassing and humiliating” to read now. It was about teenagers fighting illness but “also about this alcoholic, 22-year-old, handsome hospital chaplain and which hot doctor he would hook up with next.”

But it was his mentor at Booklist, children’s author Ilene Cooper, who helped usher his first real book—Looking for Alaska—into publication. Though these days, when everyone and their mom seems to be writing a YA book to get onto the money train, Green says, “I sold my first book for $8,000. It wasn’t that much of a business opportunity.” He had another reason for writing for teens. “The world of adult publishing just seemed so packed and competitive and catty,” Green says. Besides, the books that were still the most important to him were the ones he’d read as a teen. As Green puts it, 16-year-olds see no problem with their two favorite books being a literary book like The Catcher in the Rye and a fantasy like Twilight.

In January 2007, following the publication of Looking for Alaska, the Greens launched Brotherhood 2.0. They were inspired by the work of Internet video pioneer Ze Frank, who uploaded a video every weekday, referred to his viewers as “sports racers,” and launched projects like having two people on opposite sides of the Earth place a slice of bread on the ground to create “an Earth sandwich.” “There was something so invigorating and special about those communities,” Green says.

Early on, the brothers had a few hundred dedicated fans. Friends thought they were crazy. Johnson says that when she first heard about the project, she thought, “That’s dumb—that’s superdumb. Why would you do that instead of writing?” Then, seven months later, Hank uploaded a song about Harry Potter, and the brothers’ YouTube channel exploded to 8000 viewers overnight. On the one-year anniversary of TFiOS’s release, John and Hank brought their Brotherhood to the stage at Carnegie Hall and sold out the place. Nerdfighters had united.

Let's go back to that stuff about being busy for a minute. Because these days Green also hosts videos for Crash Course, AP-level history and biology classes geared toward high school students and written by Green’s high school history teacher, Raoul Meyer, among others. John and Hank sell music, posters, T-shirts, and other merchandise through their DFTBA (Don’t Forget to Be Awesome) Records, and they organize VidCon, an annual conference for emerging YouTube stars that expects to draw 25,000 people this year. Meanwhile, he’s raising two young kids, both under 5 years old, with his wife, Sarah Urist Green, who curates and hosts a show for PBS Digital called The Art Assignment, in which he also appears. If you’re wondering if he ever wants to take a nap, the answer seems to be not really.

“It’s a privilege to have a platform to talk about things you care about, but it’s an irrevocable privilege. I try to take it seriously,” he says. And that includes admitting when he’s wrong. “Early on, I made a video where I made fun of Young Earth creationism. That seems like the safest joke in the world,” Green says, but “so many people were hurt because they felt like they were part of something [as a nerdfighter] that had been turned against them.” He still stands behind his pro-evolution beliefs but feels bad about being snarky. “It’s wrong to make people feel other and separate.”

That spirit of inclusion is at the big beating heart of what Green’s fans love about him. Mostly, they are bright teenagers who feel alienated from their peers. In Green, they’ve found a mentor—a kindred spirit who encourages them without pandering.

In a recent video, Green tells the nerdfighters about his experience on set at The Fault in Our Stars, and he connects it to a grander statement about humanity in his singular way. “I would argue that curiosity is not the most important human trait—the urge to collaborate is,” Green says. “Only we have the ability to cooperate, to make online communities and space telescopes and imaginariums and movies, so the great thrill of this whole experience is seeing humanity do what I think it’s best at, which is not competing, it’s cooperating.” At the moment, Green looks less pied piper and more Mr. Rogers, another figure who turned down ministering in a church to make people feel special. And as Green races from project to project, working relentlessly in every medium to bring in outsiders, it becomes abundantly clear: This guy knows what it means to be a good neighbor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios