CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

10 Interesting Things About Great Britain

Getty Images
Getty Images

By Erica Rex

1. The Cabbies Are Smarter Than Google Maps

London has the most informed cab drivers in the world—and they’ve got the diplomas to prove it. To become a certified taxi operator in London, a driver must first pass “the Knowledge,” an extraordinarily difficult exam that involves the detailed recall of 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of London’s Charing Cross railway station. But that’s just the beginning. Cabbies must also memorize the locations of clubs, hospitals, hotels, parks, theaters, schools, restaurants, government buildings, and churches. Plus, they have to be fluent in English.

Most drivers take three years to master the Knowledge, and many practice by tracing the routes on a bicycle. It’s not uncommon to see future cabbies pedaling through the city in the early morning with plastic-covered maps clipped to their handlebars. Drivers must know their directions backwards and forwards, which is a complicated task in the maze of London’s one-way streets and blocked-off pedestrian zones.

The testing process isn’t quick, either. The exam comprises a six-month series of evaluations that includes written, oral, and practical tests, and only one-quarter of the candidates make it through. But there’s an additional benefit for those who pass. In 2000, researchers at the Wellcome Trust in London scanned the brains of 16 London taxi drivers and found that each cabbie’s hippocampus—the area of the brain associated with memory—was larger than those of control subjects. Scientists believe that the hippocampus grew larger as the drivers spent more time on the job. Storing and retaining that much information could actually be a prescription for avoiding dementia.

2. The Swans Never Miss a Census

The royal family provides a full range of curiosities beyond extravagant weddings. Consider the tradition of England’s annual swan census. Officially, the Queen owns all of the mute swans along the Thames River. But determining just how many birds are in Her Majesty’s flock takes work. So, every July, the royal family conducts a “Swan Upping,” when an armada of skiffs row up the Thames looking for baby swans. When the rowers spot them, they shout, “All up!” and get into formation surrounding the tiny birds. Then the swans are meticulously examined, weighed, measured, and banded by the Queen’s Swan Warden, a Professor of Ornithology at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology. Adult swans are examined and counted, too.

The Swan Upping dates back to at least the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans on open water. Today, the tradition exists purely for the Crown’s amusement, but the historical justification for the census makes sense. Back in the 1100s, swan meat was considered a delicacy, and it was often served at royal banquets. By keeping strict tabs on the birds, all the king’s henchmen could make sure that no one was poaching from the royal flock.

3. The Doctor’s Offices Are Worthy of Poetry

The first National Healthcare System (NHS) hospital opened its doors on July 5, 1948. Ever since, it’s provided free services to all, regardless of wealth or status. But treating anyone and everyone requires an army of a staff, and today, the NHS employs a whopping 1.7 million people. Only Walmart boasts more paid employees.

But just because the organization employs a lot of workers doesn’t mean that patients are treated to speedy service. In fact, the delays to see an NHS doctor can get pretty long, which is why poet Michael Lee founded a charity in 1998 called Poems in the Waiting Room. The organization distributes cards, each containing seven or eight poems, to the waiting rooms of 1400 medical practices.

Of course, not every poem submitted makes the grade. The compositions can be modern or classic, but the theme matters immensely. Most of the poems are about home, journeys, acceptance, friendship, learning, and love. But before a piece can be accepted for publication, a psychotherapist must screen each selection to ensure that the verse is suitable for the “anxious and even possibly emotionally disturbed.” These days, Poems in the Waiting Room is so popular that it’s launched foreign editions in New Zealand and Ireland. And in the summer of 2010, the Sutter Medical Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., became the first medical center in the United States to adopt the program.

4. The Nannies Are Loaded

In the United Kingdom, nannies can earn higher starting salaries than teachers, policemen, and nurses—if they come with the right credentials. Usually, that means training at England’s most prestigious nanny finishing school, Norland College in Bath. Graduates of the two-year program can look forward to annual starting salaries around $40,000 USD, not to mention expense-paid holidays with their employers to places like Dubai and Val d’Isère. And that’s just fresh out of school. An experienced Norland nanny can earn up to $160,000 USD per year.

For more than a century, England’s rich and famous have relied on Norland nannies to tend to their young. Mick Jagger’s children were raised by Norland nannies, as were Princess Anne’s. Both swear by them.

5. The Castles Are Anything But Romantic

England boasts some 1000 castles. Today, most of them operate as hotels and tourist attractions, but in their glory days, castles had a very different purpose—to keep people out. Built on hilltops, castles usually posted guards on their battlements, where they could see invaders coming from miles away. As foreigners advanced, archers would shoot arrows at them through tiny slits in the castle walls that allowed them to see out without letting enemies see in.

Even if trespassers were skilled enough to survive the arrows and the moat surrounding the castle, getting beyond the gate was nearly impossible. Guards posted on the roofs would pour hot oil on invaders’ heads through “murder holes,” small openings in the ceiling just in front of the entrance. But perhaps the sneakiest defense tactic of all was the one that looked the most harmless: the spiral staircase. In castles, staircases ascend clockwise, making it much more difficult for a right-handed intruder to wield a sword and attack. Instead, the intruder’s body was exposed to the right-handed defenders coming down the stairs, rendering invaders completely vulnerable.

6. You Can Dance Like a Horned Beast

Britain has an enormous appetite for summer festivals. There are concerts, hog roasts, science fairs, and of course the famed Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts in Hay-on-Wye, Wales (dubbed by Bill Clinton as “the Woodstock of the mind”). But the prize for the oldest and strangest festival goes to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, first performed in a small village in Staffordshire in 1226. That year, hunting rights were granted to the residents of nearby Needwood Forest. To celebrate, some of the men put on reindeer horns and paraded through town, dancing and singing like worshippers in a pagan fertility rite.

But there’s an element of mystery to the story, too. Thanks to the wonders of carbon dating, scientists learned that one set of the reindeer horns is 950 years old—older than the festival itself. And because there are no reindeer in the United Kingdom, many historians speculate that Vikings brought the horns over from Scandinavia. Also fascinating is the fact that the Horn Dancers closely resemble the figures in the famous Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux, in modern-day France, which are estimated to be 17,000 years old. Depending on how you look at it, the Horn Dance is either pure silliness, or a mystery wrapped in a horn helmet wrapped in a tradition dating back to the dawn of mankind!

7. The Pub Food Might Be Better Than the Drink

In England, pubs are as central to daily life as church and school. They serve as communal living rooms where people meet to chat, gossip, sing, and drink. But in recent years, pubs have been closing at an average rate of six per day throughout the country.

Some say the decline is due to recent bans on smoking in the establishments. Others blame big retailers for undercutting the local pubs’ prices. For example, in the week leading up to the World Cup, mammoth grocery chain Tesco offered shoppers two dozen cans of Stella Artois for just over $6 USD. Meanwhile, pub patrons could expect to shell out between $30 and $40 USD for the same amount of beer. Rather than watching the World Cup on the big screen at their local watering hole, lots of people watched the games at home instead. It was simply cheaper that way.

But some pubs are fighting back with a new strategy: expanding their appeal to women and families. As part of the effort, “gastropubs” such as The Fox in Chetwynd-Aston, Shropshire, have begun serving excellent food, including high-end fare like fennel-and-leek soup, goat cheese-and-cranberry salad, and chicken liver pâté. That’s a long way from traditional pub grub like the ploughman’s lunch—a hunk of bread, a slab of Cheddar, a few pickles, and a pint of beer.

8. Losing Your Job Doesn’t Mean Losing Your Mansion

In Britain, if you’ve lost your job or simply taken a salary cut, the government will help cover your rent. According to a policy called the Housing Benefit, any legal U.K. resident whose income has been reduced can file a claim for aid—and it’s hardly a paltry sum. For people who rent in posh London neighborhoods, it can mean up to £1750 (about $2800 USD) a month in financial aid. (The program applies only to rent, not mortgage payments.)

The roots of the Housing Benefit stretch back to 1919, when the government started subsidizing public housing for the poor and unemployed. In the decades since, it’s expanded to cover just about anyone who’s lost work—and that’s led to controversy. Opponents of the policy use this example: Say you’re a banker living in London and you lose your job; the Housing Benefit could give you the money to keep your swank apartment in Notting Hill. Now say you’re a factory worker living in Liverpool and you manage to hold onto your job; no one’s giving you a shilling to subsidize your modest townhouse. Instead, your taxes go toward paying rent for some wealthy, unemployed banker. Today, Prime Minister David Cameron is lobbying for change. “It isn’t fair for working people to fund homes they couldn’t even dream of,” he says.

9. The Co-op Is King

The Co-op is more than just a large chain of grocery stores. It’s also the United Kingdom’s third-largest pharmacy chain, its No. 1 provider of funeral services, and its largest farmer, with more than 70,000 acres being cultivated across Great Britain. It also employs 120,000 people, serves 5.5 million members, and operates out of 4800 retail outlets.

How did the Co-op in Britain get so big? The Co-operative Group was founded in 1844 by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, a group of textile millworkers who wanted to provide the community with high-quality, low-cost goods. In the spirit of egalitarianism and democracy, it allowed anyone to become a member, regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity, as long as they volunteered their time and energy to the mission of the group. In fact, the Rochdale Society formed the principles on which co-operatives around the world operate today.

To cut costs, the Co-op starting buying farmland and growing its own produce in 1896. Since then, it has continued to buy land, and its egalitarian ethos has resonated with generations of British citizens. Today, the Co-op is at the forefront of the nation’s self-sufficiency movement, which encourages people to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle by growing and consuming local foods.

10. The Girls Are Thick as Thieves

While the recent rise of girl gangs in Britain may be keeping U.K. politicians up at night, bands of female crooks are nothing new to the region. Beginning in the late 1700s, an all-female crime syndicate known as the Forty Elephants started using clever thievery to wreak havoc on local economies. The sticky-fingered women became known for using Victorian-era fashions and standards to their advantage. The Elephants had specially tailored pockets sewn into their puffy bloomers and skirts to hide any objects they lifted. And because the prudish norms of the day dictated that women be given total privacy as they browsed and tried on merchandise, the crimes were rarely witnessed. According to The Guardian, the Elephants operated with “military precision,” sometimes robbing dozens of shops across a city all at the same time. So, where have all the Elephants gone? The gang thrived for about 150 years, until the public’s views on women changed, outdating the group’s original tactics.

All images courtesy of Getty Images

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
arrow
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.
TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
John Ueland
arrow
History
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.

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!”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios