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7 Scientific Solutions for Annoying Little Problems

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Image via Wonderhowto.com

by Elizabeth Maine

Scientists are working to alleviate those maddening, irritating, altogether obnoxious things that can make your everyday life hell. And not a moment too soon!

1. Cereal Dust

THE DILEMMA Ever notice when you open a box of granola that the nuts and raisins are on top while smaller riffraff lingers at the bottom, making it all but impossible to eat a well-rounded bowl of cereal? This phenomenon is known as the “Muesli Effect,” and it describes the tendency of different size particles to separate, with the largest paradoxically ending up on top and the smallest down below. It also occurs in bags of mixed nuts, which explains why Brazil nuts are always on top (thus the alternate nickname, the “Brazil Nut Effect”), and in gardens, which is why no matter how many rocks you remove from the soil, there are always more next spring, rising up from the Earth’s depths.

It’s the bane of manufacturers, who (like you) prefer their mixtures to stay mixed, and since the 1930s, leagues of cereal physicists have struggled to solve this puzzle. It defies logic: Shouldn’t the bigger, heavier particles sink and the lighter, littler particles rise to the surface? Some blame a process called “granular convection,” whereby larger particles float on top of the smaller granules, which act like a liquid. Others point to percolation, in which the small grains trickle downward, or “fluid drag,” which impacts how much particles move when they’re jostled.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION While the Muesli Effect is still largely a mystery, inroads have been made toward some solutions. In 1996, engineers led by Kurt Liffman at the Advanced Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Australia announced research showing that the way containers are shaken during packaging could make a difference. “By shaking a pile of particles ‘vertically,’ i.e. in the direction parallel to gravity, we obtain the ‘Muesli Effect,’ where the large particles, initially, rise to the top,” they said at a conference. “Conversely, by shaking the box horizontally, we obtain the ‘reverse Muesli Effect,’ i.e. where the large particles, initially, fall to the bottom.” Unsatisfied with the temporary cereal harmony, engineers are still working on a new type of packaging that could keep the dust where it belongs.

THE QUICK FIX So what does this mean for average breakfasters craving both raisins and crunchy oats in their morning cereal? If you open a box and see mostly large particles, hold the box upright and shake it side to side to make them sink. Seems counterintuitive, but it’s far more effective than turning the box upside down. Science proves it!

2. Overheard Cell Phone Conversations

THE DILEMMA Why is it so easy—and irritating— to get sucked into other people’s cell calls no matter how hard we resist? Cognitive scientists have dubbed this phenomenon the “halfalogue” and have studied why it’s so awful. In one experiment, volunteers played simple computer games—such as following a dot with a mouse—while listening to monologues, dialogues, and halfalogues. People listening to halfalogues performed the worst. The reason, researchers theorize, is that these half-conversations eat up more of our attention as we try to piece them together. “When the brain listens to speech, it builds expectations millisecond by millisecond for what it will hear next,” explains study co-author Michael Spivey, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Merced. “When those expectations are violated, it’s disruptive to the smooth processing of the human mind.”

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION Thankfully, cell phone companies are aware of the mass aggravation caused by their wares, and engineers are working on technology to dampen the din. Certain Samsung phones, for example, include an early-generation “Whisper Mode” that makes use of a hypersensitive microphone, so you can speak more quietly and be far less audible to those around you. While this feature isn’t yet common—or perfected—most manufacturers are working on ways to make babble less bothersome.

THE QUICK FIX Spivey’s team has come up with an alternate (albeit somewhat spurious) solution: Since their research shows that dialogues drain less of our brain power than halfalogues, you can reclaim some peace of mind by politely asking chatty cell phone users to put their conversations on speaker, so you can hear both sides. Chances are this request will be met with strange looks and (we hope) stunned silence.

3. Songs Stuck in Your Head

THE DILEMMA If you’ve been compulsively humming “Poker Face” for the past, oh, 17 hours straight, then you’ve been bitten by an “earworm,” says James Kellaris, associate professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati and author of the study “Dissecting Earworms: Further Evidence on the ‘Song-Stuck-in-Your-Head’ Phenomenon.” In his paper, he writes: “Just as certain biochemical agents (histamines) have physical properties that can cause the skin to itch, certain pieces of music may have properties that excite an abnormal reaction in the brain—a cognitive itch. The only way to ‘scratch’ that itch is to rehearse the tune mentally. This repetition actually exacerbates the itch, so the mental rehearsal becomes largely involuntary, and the individual feels trapped in a cycle or feedback loop.”

Insanity-inducing songs that are simple, repetitive, and contain some incongruity—a slight odd element—are the most likely to get stuck, with “Macarena,” Barney’s “I Love You,” and “Whoomp! (There It Is)” among the worst offenders. “But only half the answer resides in the song,” Kellaris says. “Characteristics of listeners also contribute to the earworm phenomenon. Musicians are more prone than the general population, probably due to their greater levels of exposure to music and to the repetition experienced in rehearsal. And women appear more susceptible than men. When an earworm is greeted with a panicky When on earth is this going to stop? reaction, it will stick around longer. Research shows that men seem to have more success in simply ignoring earworms and waiting for them to go away.” Generally, earworms are more likely to attack when we are tired, stressed, or in an otherwise weakened state.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION The best cure is to employ what Kellaris calls an “eraser tune” to eat the worm. “An eraser tune devours an earworm by combining the benefits of both distraction and replacement,” says Kellaris. “Cognitively, the brain can do only so much at once, so if it is engaged in processing an eraser tune, that limits its capacity to continue an earworm.”

THE QUICK FIX Pull out your iPod and listen to a new, less annoying song three or four times in a row. Of course, if your eraser tune is too catchy, it might just replace one earworm with another. “That is a risk,” Kellaris acknowledges. “Ideally, eraser tunes should be something more complex and less repetitive than the earworm to keep it from lodging in your head. Again.”

4. Whiny Kids

THE DILEMMA What’s more distracting than the screech of a buzz saw, nails slowly dragging across a blackboard, or a nuclear detonation? It’s the high-pitched wail of a screaming baby or the incessant whine of a toddler. Rosemarie Chang, psychology instructor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, asked study subjects to do math problems while listening to a variety of annoying background noises. Unruly kids took the prize as the most distracting noise.

THE QUICK FIX Chang theorizes that crying and whining, forms of “attachment vocalization,” evolved as ways for kids to get their parents’ attention and ensure survival (or at least scam a Power Rangers toy at the mall). And parents unwittingly encourage their tykes by responding with their own form of attachment vocalization, called “motherese” —that excruciating singsong otherwise known as baby talk. They spur each other on endlessly. So when the kids are old enough to form sentences, cut the goo-goo speak!

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION What about older kids? The way to derail a teen whining about borrowing your Volvo, says Welsh inventor Howard Stapleton, is to fight fire with fire. At age 12, Stapleton accompanied his dad to his factory job and was shocked when adults weren’t bothered by the high-pitched assembly line hum. He discovered that adults gradually lose the ability to hear high frequencies. So Stapleton invented a device called the Mosquito, which emits a high-pitched grating sound that’s typically audible only to people under 24. He’s sold 10,000 units worldwide, largely to retailers who want to keep unruly teens from congregating.

5. Long Work Meetings

THE DILEMMA It’s 3 p.m., your blood sugar’s at an all-time low, and you’re trapped in a marathon meeting that refuses to end. Oh dear God … is that yet another PowerPoint presentation?

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION While there’s little you can do to escape this particular hell, scientists have pinpointed a technique to make your time more bearable: Pick up a pen and start doodling! It may seem counterproductive, but scribbling helps you concentrate, says Jackie Andrade, a cognitive psychologist at Plymouth University (England) and author of the study “What Does Doodling Do?” in Applied Cognitive Psychology. Study subjects who doodled while listening to a droning teleconference remembered far more of the content than nondoodlers. The reason, Andrade theorizes, is that drawing geometric shapes and weird animals is less distracting than what you’d be doing otherwise: daydreaming. “Research shows that daydreaming uses a lot of mental energy. Once that process begins, it becomes very hard to get back on track,” Andrade explains. “A simple task like doodling might occupy just enough brain power to keep you from spacing out but not so much that it will disrupt the main task you’re trying to concentrate on.” She also points out that doodling complements meetings particularly well, unlike sneaking a peek at a text message, which competes for verbal processing resources.

THE QUICK FIX So what should you draw? “Simple, repetitive, automatic doodles are best,” says Andrade. “A work of art would be way too absorbing.”

6. SPAM

THE DILEMMA In 2004, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates claimed that “two years from now, spam will be solved.” But today, it still makes up 70 percent of the email we receive. Recently a group of spamalyzers at UC San Diego, and UC Berkeley, tried tackling this problem by taking the bait and buying what the spammers were hawking. After amassing a mountain of Levitra and counterfeit Rolexes, they were able to paint a full picture of the spam ecosystem. For one typical message, the domain registrar was in Russia, the server computer in China, and a proxy server in Brazil. When a purchase was made, shoppers were shuttled from a computer in Turkey to a bank in Azerbaijan, then received their shipment from a manufacturer in India. What was the weak link in the chain?

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION “If there was just one of these things you could shoot in the head, which would have the most impact?” asked Stefan Savage, a computer science and engineering professor at UC San Diego. Savage’s team found that 95 percent of the spam they received used just three banks—one in Azerbaijan, another in Saint Kitts and Nevis, and the third in Russia—to do their financial dirty work. Savage believes the most effective solution would be to convince U.S. banks to blacklist certain clients at these institutions. “We’d be demonetizing the industry,” says Savage, adding that they’re in talks with various companies to put their theory into action.

THE QUICK FIX In 2001, computer savant Vipul Ved Prakash created the world’s first community-based spam filter. Now called Cloudmark DesktopOne, it allows users to tag spam and keep it from reaching others. It ain’t perfect—spammers change email and domain names constantly. But today, 1.6 billion people use it, and it’s more effective than the filters used by Yahoo! and AOL.

7. Rain During Your Vacation

THE DILEMMA Your two-week trip to Cancun could have been amazing … if it hadn’t rained every day. Too bad weather channels don’t tell you the forecast six months out—in fact, they have a hard time telling you whether it’s going to rain tomorrow. The problem, say meteorologists, is that the models used to predict weather are cumbersome and involve infinite variables. If humidity, wind direction, or barometric pressure is off by 1 percent, the whole forecast falls apart.

THE SCIENCE SOLUTION In the 1990s, meteorologist Bill Kirk was a captain in the U.S. Air Force trying to predict which dates would be best for flight training six months in advance. Fed up with traditional weather models and their flimsy grasp on the future, he developed his own algorithm: a combination of Gaussian mathematical theories, climate cycles, and statistical weather data spanning back 115 years—data that most meteorologists rarely touch. The result: a new way of forecasting that’s accurate up to a year in advance. These days, Kirk helps such clients as Walmart, Target, and Kohl’s plan inventory based on weather conditions. And his year-ahead weekly precipitation forecast is 76 percent accurate—better than the 71 percent accuracy of the Weather Channel’s one- to 10-day forecasts.

THE QUICK FIX In September 2010, Kirk launched the free website Weathertrends360.com to help the rest of us schedule events when weather could be a make-or-break factor.

All images courtesy of iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alamy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the years leading up to the Civil War, many Northerners and Southerners alike wanted the federal government to take a more aggressive approach toward acquiring new territory. In fact, some private citizens, known as filibusters, took matters into their own hands. They raised small armies illegally; ventured into Mexico, Cuba, and South America; and attempted to seize control of the lands. One particularly successful filibuster, William Walker, actually made himself president of Nicaragua and ruled from 1856 to 1857.

For the most part, these filibusters were just men in search of adventure. Others, however, were Southern imperialists who wanted to conquer new territories in the tropics. Abolitionist factions in the North greatly opposed their efforts, and the debate over Southern expansion only increased tensions in a divided nation. As the country drifted into war, U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge of Kentucky warned that "the Southern states cannot afford to be shut off from all possibility of expansion towards the tropics by the hostile action of the federal government."

But Abraham Lincoln's election in November 1860 put an end to the argument. The anti-slavery president refused to compromise on the issue, and war broke out in April 1861.

CONFEDERATE COLONIES, SOUTH OF THE BORDER

Winning the war was clearly a higher priority for the Confederacy than conquering Latin America, but growth was certainly on the post-war agenda. The Confederate constitution included the right to expand, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis filled his cabinet with men who thought similarly. He even hinted that the slave trade could be revived in "new acquisitions to be made south of the Rio Grande."

During the Civil War, Confederate agents attempted to destabilize Mexico so that its territories would be easy to snatch up after the war. One rebel emissary to Mexico City, John T. Pickett, secretly fomented rebellion in several Mexican provinces with an eye to "the permanent possession of that beautiful country." Pickett's mission ended in failure in 1861, but fate dealt the South a better hand in 1863. French Emperor Napoleon III seized Mexico, and the move provided the South with a perfect excuse to "liberate" the country after the Civil War.

Of course, Mexico was just part of the pie that the South hoped to inherit. Confederate leaders also had their eyes squarely on Brazil—a country of 3 million square miles and more than 8 million people. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Matthew Maury, one of the forces behind the U.S. Naval Academy, dispatched two Navy officers to the Amazon basin, ostensibly to map the river for shipping. Instead, they were secretly plotting domination and collecting data about separatist movements in the region. When the South lost the war, Maury refused to abandon his plans. He helped up to 20,000 ex-rebels flee to Brazil, where they established the Confederate colonies of New Texas and Americana. To this day, hundreds of descendants of the Confederados still gather outside Americana to celebrate their shared heritage of rocking chairs and sweet potato pie. In a strange way, a part of the Old South still survives—thousands of miles below the U.S. border.

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