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Daniel Radcliffe on Space Travel, Russian Literature, and Napoleon

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Harry Potter might have worn the glasses, but the truth is it's Daniel Radcliffe who's a bit of a nerd. A self-professed history buff, lover (and sometimes writer) of poetry, collector of books, and trivia enthusiast who makes quizzes for fun, Radcliffe is our kind of guy. We sat down with the star—whose new film, Horns, is out on Halloween—to find out what language he's learning, the book he thinks everyone should read, and which historical figure he'd play on Drunk History. Plus, scroll down to see the awesome special edition cover that's going only to subscribers (click here to get it!).

You once said that school was hard for you but you learned to love learning on the Harry Potter set. What do you feed your mind these days?
I used to read a lot of fiction and now I read a lot of non-fiction. And I discovered a few blogs on Kinja that I like that just talk about interesting things—Deadspin is the one I got into it from, but [Kinja has] a blog for anything that you could possibly be interested in.

I also consume endless factual television programs. I have it in my head that if I go to bed watching something like [the Smithsonian Channel], I’ll retain it, and if I do it enough, then I’ll retain quite a lot, eventually. I was learning about Hittites last night. I remember thinking “That’s good that the Hittites have had a show,” because you don’t hear about them. All of the latest civilizations take their thunder away, but they were one of the first civilizations! They deserve a mention!

What do you consume, culture-wise?
I get a lot of my news off of Deadspin. I watch a lot of news on TV. I should read a newspaper, but I don’t, really. I think that’s mainly because it becomes clutter—I immediately I would forget to throw it out and I’d die under a pile of newspapers. But culturally I’m quite like low-brow in terms of the stuff I like to watch—faintly educational television where I’m getting something out of it, or it’s The Food Network, or just the worst kind of reality TV, like Millionaire Matchmaker. I watched an almost entire series of Top Chef the other day just because it was on. So I suppose culturally I’m not very cultured. [Laughs] That’s the thing—I’m mainly just interested in gathering information. I feel like half the stuff I learn doing quizzes and crosswords and remembering answers. Here’s a good question for you: Who was the first President of all 50 United States?

I’m going to flunk this. Hawaii wasn’t a state until the ‘50s. Who came after Truman? [Long pause] I give up.
Eisenhower! I like it because I feel like that’s a good pub quiz question. I also enjoy making quizzes for people—we started doing that a lot on Cripple of Inishmaan [on the West End] last summer. We would pair off into teams and we would have the team who won the quiz write the next quiz, and I just wrote a horrible quiz. They hated me! It was really good. It was based around the idea of things that you should know, but don’t. Like, what was the name of the third man that went to the moon? Michael Collins. I always feel like he gets forgotten, because he was in the command capsule. One of the most beautiful facts I've ever heard is that when he went around the dark side of the moon, he was the furthest away from any other human being than any human being has ever been. I always thought there was something strangely lovely about that. And I always thought that must have sucked to not get the recognition that [Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong] got. I was a big fan of Michael Collins.

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Would you ever go to space? I wouldn’t—too much space junk.
Oh, really? Would you not go to space if you had the chance? I would let a few people go first—I would want commercial passenger space travel to become more common before I do it—but I would definitely go up there. I would like to do the vomit comet, actually, and the centrifuge and all that.

Today I learned that “fadoodling” was a 17th century slang term for having sex. What’s a really good fact you learned recently?
I learned the other day that prostitutes in England used to be called “Winchester Geese,” which is so weird to me. Winchester is a nice cathedral town in the south of England and that it was ever a byword for prurience is kind of amazing.

Where did you learn that?
My friend sent me a photo of just a plaque outside an old cemetery saying “This is where prostitutes, or ‘Winchester Geese,’ used to be buried.’” It was my birthday card, which made it weirder. I also learned not long ago that earwigs have two penises, one in case the other one breaks off—which it often does, apparently, during earwig sex.

Do you have a favorite British slang word that you think Americans should start using?
We’ve got loads! Bollocks is obviously a great word to dismiss something. We’re not a particularly hot country, but we have a lot of very colorful phrases for sweating. My favorite is one my friend used to say—“sweating like a glass blower’s asshole,” which is a delightful English phrase, very vivid. [Laughs] I know the phrase is good is when my girlfriend starts saying it, and one of those is “good shout.” If someone has a good idea or something, it’s “good shout”—I suppose it’s like saying “good call.”

I’d like to improve my British accent. What are some mistakes that people who are trying to do a British accent make?
People tend to pronounce everything very, very specifically. Like the word "little"—people in America say "li-tull." And nobody in England ever says it like that—we get lazy with the T sound. We don’t make it with the tip of the tongue behind the ridge of the teeth; it’s almost like a lateral S sound. The thing that’s hardest for Americans is they have an image of us all being sort of just very, very posh, and a lot of Americans can do a really posh British accent, but how people speak day-to-day is much harder to do. 

I wish I could give more tips! I would just relax the sounds a bit more. And whatever you do, however good your accent gets, never think that a group of English people will want to hear it, because we never will. We find it more embarrassing than funny.

Speaking personally, my American accent I hope is good, but most English people cannot do an American accent to save their lives, if that makes you feel any better. Everyone goes kind of Southern. If you ask people to do an impression of an American, they go deep South immediately.

Did you work with someone to help you with your American accent?
I did—I worked with an accent coach. But I had also done an American accent for a long time, just because when I was playing as a kid, I would give my action figures American accents. We’re just infused with American TV shows in England, and that’s mostly what I watched. I guess I learned my accent from The Simpsons, because that was my first interaction with America.

If you could pick any time to go back and visit, which would it be?
I would like to see the moment when Neanderthals and Homo erectus interacted—that far back. That’s the kind of history that I find most fascinating, because those are the moments when you see things developing that are recognizably and uniquely human. If you go back to any other time, sure, the clothes are nice, but there’s typhoid and cholera! A brutal, short Neanderthal life to the age of 35 was probably what we were designed for.

Let’s say ghosts are real. Which historical figure would you want to haunt you?
Napoleon, or some other historical figure with a huge ego. Because you don’t want a mopey ghost. I’d quite like to meet John Keats, but I get the idea that his ghost would probably be very sad. Whereas, I imagine Napoleon’s would just be still raging and angry.


If you could buy any piece of art—no limits—what would you pick?
There’s a painting by Jackson Pollock called The Deep, which is not particularly like his other things. It’s almost like you’re looking through into a gap between two clouds into this sort of abyss, but it’s strangely beautiful.

Are you a wander-through-the-bookstore kind of guy or a buy-books-online kind of guy?
A wander-through-the-bookstore kind of guy, definitely. I went to the bookshop to buy my dad some stuff for his birthday the other day, and he got his books, but I got a lot more. I have this stupid rule that’s really an excuse to burn money, which is: if I ever see a book which I think that I might never see again, or if I’m suddenly interested in it, and I think “Oh well, I might never ever see this book again and be interested in it at the same time,” I just have to buy it then and there in the hope that one day I will get around to it or find something useful about it. I have bought a lot of books that I will never read that way.

Is there a book you think that everyone should read?
The Master and Margarita, definitely, by Mikhail Bulgakov. It’s imaginative, and hilarious, and magical in equal turns.

What are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m reading—I can’t believe I never read it before now—Slaughterhouse Five. Any kind of story where the author thinks, “Well, I can do whatever I like because I’m writing a book; I don’t have to be totally realistic; I can deal with this in as crazy a way as possible”—I enjoy that.

What’s the weirdest book on your bookshelf?
I had a book bought for me called The Cows, because my character in [The Cripple of Inishmaan], Billy, people talked about him staring at cows a lot. And there was this book written by a MacArthur Fellow [Lydia Davis]—obviously a serious writer, a really amazing writer. But she just wrote this very long prose poem about three cows outside her window. I won’t lie, I probably won’t read it cover to cover. 

Do you have any rare books?
I’ve got a couple of first editions of poetry. I got a book of Rupert Brooke poems—he wrote the famous, “If I should die think only this of me; That there's some corner of a foreign field but it’s forever England.” I’ve got an old collection of Yeats as well. It’s not a first edition, but it’s just old and nice looking. There is something about—I know everyone talks about it, but that would be one of my most pleasant smells in the world, the smell of old books.

That was my next question! Old book smell: Awesome or gross?
Awesome, absolutely awesome. Do you know what causes that smell?

It’s volatile organic compounds—I think there are 15 or so of them that combine to make old book smell. I can’t pronounce any of them.
Because it is, it’s delightful.

It’s the greatest. What character from literature are you dying to play?
I would like to do the voice or motion capture of Behemoth the cat from The Master and Margarita.

What about a historical figure?
I joked about Napoleon’s ghost earlier, but I am vertically ideal for Napoleon, so ... I would like to do the Drunk History of Napoleon. I was watching Drunk History again the other night and I was like, that’s the context in which I would like to play him.

One historical figure that I’m desperate to play is Lee Atwater—it’s modern history—in a film called College Republicans, which I hope will happen at some point.

We're pizza-obsessed at mental_floss, so I've got to ask. What’s your perfect pizza?
Probably, like, pepperoni and chicken with a little bit of gorgonzola.

Celery: yes or no?
No. Absolutely not. Although you will find that answer with almost every vegetable with me. I did a cooking show not long ago—they were cooking around me, and I was just talking about the movie—but at one point I had to admit that to a room full of kids. I was like, “I know I’m maybe a role model for you at this stage, which is not something I ever set out to be, and you should totally all eat your vegetables, but I do not.”

What’s a childhood game you love, or game you’re just really good at?
Table tennis I love, and am good at. And it’s the only kind of hand-eye-coordination-involving thing that I am actually good at, so I will say it unashamedly. But a childhood game? Jenga was good. Scrabble was really big in my house—my grandmother was always amazing at it. She beat us for years and years and years, and I remember the first time I actually started to do well in a game with my family, that was the first time I was like, “OK, I must be getting smarter. I must be growing up.” There was also another game called Mouse Trap, which I loved as a kid. I can’t remember any of the rules of it, but I remember there were like obstacles around the course and it was moving, and I enjoyed that as a child.

Are there any skills you haven’t mastered that you would like to?
I’d love to be able to play an instrument; I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get to a point where I can. I’d also love to speak another language. Language has been a thing that I’ve been fascinated by because it tells you so much about a people and a culture. The stories of words and word meanings and pronunciations is generally the story of society. I’m learning a bit at the moment.

Which language?
I’m trying to learn Japanese. Just to speak. There’s a film I hope to do called Tokyo Vice that has Japanese lines that my character speaks, and he’s supposed to be fairly fluent. I could just learn it totally phonetically, but I do want to have some idea of what I’m saying.

Japanese is very onomatopoeic. The word for wind is pyu pyu and if you want to upgrade that to a storm, you use gyu gyu. Hop is pyon pyon, and my favorite Japanese word is tokidoki, which means “sometimes” but it sounds like “hokey dokey.” There’s a thing you have to do in Japanese a lot which is quite fun—sometimes they'll take a modern Western word and just make it sound Japanese because they haven’t got a word for it for themselves. The word for granola bar is gar-a-nola bar, and McDonald’s is Mac-uh-Donna-roo-doh. I’ve got an amazing teacher, this guy called Shinsuke, and he’s great. I don’t know when I’ll get to use any of it, but I am enjoying it.


You’ve worked with a lot of different kinds of animals—cats, dogs, owls, and now a snake on Horns. Are you a cat guy, a dog guy, a snake guy?
I'm a dog guy, and I'm actually kind of a snake guy now. I ended up loving that snake on Horns. They’re really sweet after a while, especially because when they get cold, they just love your warm body—the colder they get, the more they kind of hang on to you. Princess Leia was the name of the snake in Horns— she got carried around in a Star Wars pillowcase—and she would do amazing things on camera that you couldn’t train a snake to do, like wrap around one of my horns [in the movie]. At that point I went “OK, Alex, I think she’s going to break the horn off.” The snake’s just trying to move, and you feel that power suddenly—like “OK, you can kill me if you wanted to.” I really enjoyed the snakes on Horns. They were almost like the ultimate prop. You don’t have to act menacing—you have a python around your neck.

You just look badass. The movie comes out on Halloween, so I have to ask: What was your best costume ever?
Halloween I would say is only just getting big in England, over the last 5 to 10 years. I’ve never been trick or treating in my life! I actually had a few good costumes, though. I was the King of fancy dress—that’s what we call it. "Fancy dress” is another good English phrase. When I was 7 years old, I ripped up an old Spider-man costume I had, found some fake nose piercings, sprayed my hair red, and went as Keith Flint, the drummer of Prodigy. When I was 14, I went to a Grease-themed party as David Bowie—I didn’t like the movie Grease at the time, so I was like, “I’ll be Bowie.” My friend was able to get me a lot of costumes that Jonathan Rhys Meyers wore in Velvet Goldmine. It was pretty awesome.

Also on the subject of Halloween: What kind of horror movies do you like watching?
I'm a fan of SyFy's movies and B-movie horror. Sharknado is Syfy’s most famous movie, but they've also got Megashark vs. Gatoroid. For proper horror films, The Shining is obviously a pretty great movie. But yeah, I'm much more into the beast movie thing, which is why I actually love [Horns director] Alexandre Aja's work. I was talking to him about Piranha 3D, and he was like, "I just wanted to make the bloodiest, sexiest version of a B-movie that I possibly could," and he did it. The number of ways that Alex had come up with for people to die in that movie? It's incredibly inventive. The death by motorboat propeller is my favorite—it's horrible. And what’s that other movie I haven't seen in awhile? ... Deep Blue Sea

With the LL Cool J song!
[Rapping] "Deepest bluest my hat is like a shark fin." LL Cool J is actually really good in that movie. He's the best character in that movie—apart from like, Sam Jackson's best ever death scene.

In Harry Potter, you had a lightning scar on your forehead. For Frankenstein, which is out next year, you wore hair extensions, and for this movie, you wore horns. What’s more annoying to have applied?
One hundred percent hair extensions. The lightning scar, on the first two films, we essentially painted it on, and after that we used Pros-Aide, which was like a glue [to put it on]. It was very simple. The horns were basically on a wire cage, and we hid the metal under the hair and then blended in the front. But the hair extensions took 14 hours to put in across two days and were a nightmare to live with and wash for the five months I had them. They're supposed to take 4 to 5 hours to take out, but I think we did them in two because I was just ripping them out of my head.

You’re slated to play Washington Roebling in a movie about the Brooklyn Bridge, which must be pretty cool for a history buff. When you're preparing to play an actual person, do you research a lot?
Yeah, absolutely you have to—I would feel weird not doing that. One of the great things about playing someone who is real is that a lot of the work has generally been done for you. There are tons of Allen Ginsberg autobiographies that I could look at [to play the poet in Kill Your Darlings]; his diaries actually were the main thing I looked at. It's about reading as much about the man and the history and the period as you possibly can. It's also one of the fun parts of the job, learning about your character—particularly when it's a real person and you find out interesting bits of information and you think “Oh, maybe we can work that into the story.”

The story of the Roeblings and the Brooklyn Bridge—I really hope we to get to tell that story. It's an amazing American story, and a story about a marriage that was so different from what people expected of a marriage in that time. That's why I think it’s particularly an important story to tell: Emily [Roebling] for the first half of the script is very much the sort of doting wife in a period film, and then you see her build the bridge. The equality in their marriage and the way they needed each other, and were so open about needing each other, feels very rare—like a story we don't often hear about in that era. I have kind of fallen in love with New York and so to make something that feels like a love letter to America but also very specific to New York as well, and what New York is to America … I hope it happens. It'll be great. It's a fantastic script.

What’s your favorite karaoke song?
Anything by Eminem, genuinely. If everyone joins in on the chorus I’ll do “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” the Frankie Valli song, because the rest of the song is high, but the chorus is really high.

What songs would you include on the soundtrack to your life?
My favorite song ever, and I totally forgot how brilliant it is until I listened to it again the other day, is “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, and that would seamlessly obviously give way to “Can I Kick It” by A Tribe Called Quest because they sample it. And then there’s “Time For Heroes” by The Libertines, “Where Is My Mind?” by The Pixies, and “We Will All Go Together When We Go,” by Tom Lehrer. This could be such a long list I could keep going but I’ll stop there. Oh no, I won’t stop there: “EMI” by The Sex Pistols.

What, to you, is the most annoying sound in the world?
The sound of my own voice, specifically saying the words “you know.” It is my pause phrase, and instead of pausing—which I should just do—I say “you know,” even when I don’t know what I’m about to say! I’m sure there are more annoying sounds in the world, but that is the one that grates in my ear the most, and because I’m in a press tour at the moment, I’m hearing it a lot. I’m definitely at the point where I'm really starting to irritate myself.

Well they say that using phrases like that and "um" and "uh" actually helps people comprehend what you’re saying better. That is science.
[Laughs] That’s what I’m doing—I’m just making it easier for the rest of the people in the world to digest my massive thoughts!


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Ralph Heimans/Buckingham Palace/PA Wire via Getty Images
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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.

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John Ueland
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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!”

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