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!”

Take a Virtual Tour of a 17th-Century Dutch Smugglers’ Shipwreck

AndrewJalbert/iStock via Getty Images
AndrewJalbert/iStock via Getty Images

When the wreck of the Dutch smuggling ship Melckmeyt was found off the coast of Iceland in 1992, the only way to explore it was with diving equipment. That's no longer the case: As Live Science reports, shipwreck enthusiasts can now experience the watery ruin at home by taking a virtual tour.

Sunk by a storm on October 16, 1659, the Melckmeyt (Dutch for Milkmaid) is Iceland's oldest shipwreck. Its origins are Dutch, but when it set sail 360 years ago, the vessel flew a Danish flag. That's because it had been illegal for the Netherlands to trade with Iceland, which was ruled by Denmark at the time, so to smuggle goods into Icelandic ports, the Dutch sailors posed as a Danish crew.

The Melckmeyt was one of a fleet of illicit merchant ships meant to travel from the Netherlands to Iceland in 1659. After sinking that year, the wreck spent centuries in the cold, protective waters off the island of Flatey near Iceland's west coast. When it was discovered by local divers in the early 1990s, the lower hull of the ship was still in impressive condition.

The shipwreck remains in its frigid resting place at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but you don't need to book a flight or don a wetsuit to see it. In 2016, researchers from the University of Iceland and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands captured high-resolution scans of site and used them to construct a 3D model. Today, that model is available for anyone to explore on YouTube, either as a virtual reality experience with a headset or an interactive 360° video.

During the three-minute tour, you'll follow virtual divers on a journey into the ship's remains. The video ends with a computer-generated model showing what the ship might have looked like before it was ravaged by time. The video is free for anyone to watch from their computer, but if you find yourself in Iceland, you can view the recreation with a VR headset at the Reykjavik Maritime Museum.

Itching to get in touch with your inner deep-sea explorer? Here are some shipwrecks you can visit in real-life.

[h/t Live Science]

Episode 1: TR Vs. Weakness

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s October 14, 1912, and Theodore Roosevelt is standing before a crowd of 10,000 in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Auditorium. The 53-year-old former president is once again campaigning for the highest office in the land, and he was scheduled to deliver what was supposed to be a typical campaign address. But the speech he’s about to give is anything but typical.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.”

At first, the crowd doesn’t quite believe it. Someone yells “Fake!” But there are gasps and screams as Roosevelt pulls aside his vest, revealing a white shirt marred by a growing blood stain.

Just moments before, Roosevelt had been standing in an open car outside his hotel, waving to the assembled crowd—and a would-be assassin had shot him with a revolver from just 7 feet away.

Roosevelt had dropped momentarily, but it wasn’t long before he was back on his feet. Aides wanted to rush him to the hospital, and most people would have gone, but that is not Theodore Roosevelt’s style. Instead, he said, “You get me to that speech.”

And now, on stage, he assures the shocked crowd, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose … I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.”

And then, although the slug is still inside him, he proceeds to give a nearly 90-minute-long speech.

If this sounds like an extraordinary occurrence, it was. Or, it would have been for anyone but Theodore Roosevelt, a man whose life was full of extraordinary occurrences. This was a guy who charged up Kettle Hill on horseback, bullets whizzing past him, with the Rough Riders; who, when he assumed office, became the youngest president in history, and is still the youngest president we’ve ever had; who helped broker peace between Russia and Japan, and won the Nobel Prize for his efforts; who paved the way for the Panama Canal; who went off the grid to navigate a previously uncharted river in the Amazon; who was immortalized on Mount Rushmore; and who is often ranked as one of the greatest presidents of all time.

But Roosevelt wasn’t always strong enough to stop a bullet. In fact, as a child he was afflicted by asthma so terrible that his parents feared he might not live to see his 4th birthday. How did Roosevelt go from puny, sickly kid to a person capable of giving that incredible, unimaginable 90-minute speech? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. For the first season of the show, we’re focusing on Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible life using a convention that he, as a boxer, would have appreciated.

In each episode, we’ll analyze how Roosevelt took on a particular challenge, from conflict within his family and conquering the hours of the day to his tussles with other presidents and preserving the world for the next generation. This episode is "TR vs. Weakness."

But before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about how I became interested in Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, I’m the editor-in-chief of Mental Floss, so history is kind of my thing. But I didn’t fully appreciate all things TR until I plucked Edmund Morris’s excellent book, Colonel Roosevelt, out of the stacks at The Strand Bookstore. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the third book in a trilogy, so then I had to go back and read the others. But anyway, I came out of it with a huge admiration for TR, and, if I’m being honest, a little bit of an obsession.

OK, a big obsession. My desk at work has more TR stuff on it than it does photos of my cats, husband, and best friends combined. I even have a Theodore Roosevelt action figure! At home, I have an overflowing shelf devoted to books about Roosevelt. When I got married, I tried to convince my husband to go on a TR tour of the Dakotas for our honeymoon, which he did not go for, and you know, fair enough. Also, as a wedding gift, the Mental Floss staff got me some first edition books of TR’s collected speeches, which is way better than a KitchenAid mixer … no offense to KitchenAid. And last year I dressed up as Roosevelt for a Halloween costume contest … and won.

So suffice to say, once you get me started talking about Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible accomplishments, I can’t stop talking about them. Hence this podcast. Which finally allowed me take that TR tour of the Dakotas … but more on that later.

The wonderful people at Sagamore Hill call TR enthusiasts like me TedHeads, and I’m going to borrow that nickname for this podcast. So, just a note to all of the TedHeads out there: This is not an exhaustive, A to Z look at TR’s life. If we tried to do that, well, there would be a million episodes in this podcast, because Roosevelt did a staggering amount of stuff in his 60 years. We’re going to be dipping in and out of his life and we are going to miss some things. But we’re going to be visiting some important Roosevelt sites and talking to really smart Roosevelt experts, so hopefully, you’ll still learn some things along the way.

OK, ready to get started?

Bully.

Today, East 20th Street between Park Avenue South and Broadway on the island of Manhattan is a mix of stores, businesses, and restaurants, and it’s busy with taxis and trucks and cars.

But when Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858, it was a much more residential neighborhood that featured the clip-clop of horses hooves and the rattle of carriage wheels. Behind the brownstones was a garden, and around the corner, the Goelet family built a mansion in the middle of three lots, which they populated with cows and peacocks and exotic birds.

Theodore Roosevelt, Junior came into the world on the evening of October 27, in a bedroom on the second floor of the brownstone at 28 E. 20th Street. He was the second child of Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, or Mittie, and Theodore Roosevelt Senior, or Thee; their first child, Anna, or Bamie, had been born three years earlier. Later would come brother Elliott and sister Corinne.

Today, the elder Roosevelts’ room is covered with cream-colored wallpaper adorned with flowers and filled with original cherry-stained walnut furniture; a portrait of Mittie hangs over the fireplace. But we don’t know for sure if that’s what the room looked like when the Roosevelt kids were born there. The family owned the home until 1899, and then sold it, and soon after, it was either completely torn down or had the top two stories torn down—sources are a bit unclear on that point.

In 1919, after TR’s death, The Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association repurchased that building, and the one next to it—which had belonged to TR’s uncle—and reconstructed the home as Bamie and Corinne remembered it. It’s now the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Shortly after he was born, Mittie described TR as a “hideous” baby who looked like a “terrapin,” but Teedie, as he was called as a boy, quickly became the center of his family’s world.

As a child, he had a ton of energy, but from the age of 3 he was, in his own words, “a sickly, delicate boy” who “suffered much from asthma.” He also had what the family called cholera morbus, a type of nervous diarrhea.

As a result of his illness, he was largely home schooled by his Aunt Annie. When out and about in the city, his younger brother, Elliot, had to defend him against bullies. TR spent a lot of time indoors, and passed the time by reading voraciously.

According to historian Kathleen Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, when he was sick—and he often was—the adults “put the needs of the other children second because Theodore’s life was at stake.”

Alyssa: If you watch some of the documentaries, they describe him lying in the family crib, which you still see today in the nursery, barely being able to blow out his candle, from suffering that bad from asthma.

That’s Alyssa Parker-Geisman, the lead ranger at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

She says that the family tried almost everything to treat TR’s asthma. Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that one of his memories was “of my father walking up and down the room with me in his arms at night when I was a very small person, and of sitting up in bed gasping, with my father and mother trying to help me.” Sometimes, in an attempt to force air into his son’s lungs, Thee would take young Teedie in the family buggy and race up and down Broadway.

But they also tried many remedies that, although standard at the time, would raise eyebrows today.

Alyssa: David McCullough in his book Mornings on Horseback describes laudanum being used, which is opium mixed with wine. He also describes what is called Indian hemp; we call it marijuana today. Vinegar of squills was used, which was a plant, I believe, used for rat poison. Whiskey and gin were used. Kids were given enemas.

TR’s parents weren’t exactly feeding him rat poison, though—supposedly, the vinegar and processing would mitigate some of the plants’ side effects. Later, TR would recall having to smoke cigars and drink black coffee to keep his asthma at bay.

Alyssa: And I think that it boggles the mind when you think about it in today's standards. Hindsight is always 20 20. But I'm sure that was kind of cutting edge technology of the day, or medicinal treatment of the day, perhaps. If you see your child suffering, you're going to try to alleviate that in any way possible, which they could afford to do.

The Roosevelts were an affluent family, and that fact is key: Theodore Roosevelt’s story may have been very different if he hadn’t been born into a life of privilege. It not only ensured he could get the care he needed when he was ill, but it also meant that his parents could show him the world. The Roosevelts spent summers outside of the city, and they took family trips to Europe, where Mittie and Teedie would visit health resorts.

Alyssa: You go to these health resorts for treatment. You sit in hot baths, you soak in the hot waters. You might be prescribed literally a walk in the woods, as part of the treatment. So, this was all kind of that time period and the health treatment, back in the day.

This is probably a good place for a break. We'll be right back.

 

Following their first European tour, which occurred when TR was around 12, a doctor recommended he get “plenty of fresh air and exercise” with the goal of expanding his chest to give his lungs room and to ease the strain on his heart.

Afterward, Thee issued his son a challenge: “You have the mind but not the body,” he told his son, “and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.” Through gritted teeth, TR responded that he would do just that.

It was not a promise that he took lightly—TR worshipped his father, whom he called “the best man I ever knew.” Thee’s children called him Great Heart, and he was a huge influence on Roosevelt, who would, later in life, tell a journalist, “The thought of him now and always has been a sense of comfort. I could breathe, I could sleep when he had me in his arms. My father—he got me breath, he got me lungs, strength—life.”

According to Dalton, when his father was away during the Civil War, TR’s health would crater. It’s important to note that Thee was not away fighting—he paid a substitute to fight for him, at least in part because Mittie, a Southerner, couldn’t stand the thought of her husband fighting her brothers. Instead, Thee was on a mission to get troops at the front to sign up for what author Deborah Davis describes as a “payroll savings program” that would allow soldiers to “put aside money for their families while they were off fighting the war.”

It was just one more expression of Thee’s lifelong commitment to philanthropy. He would take his son with him on trips to visit missions like the Newsboys’ Lodging House, giving TR, in Dalton’s words, “a loving example of how one man can use his privilege to make society better.”

A proponent of what was known as Muscular Christianity—which has been defined as “a Christian life of brave and cheerful physical activity”—Thee told his son, “sickness is always a shame, and often a sin.”

Alyssa: His father was an example to his son. Always trying to instill in his son good moral character, strength, virility. I think Thee was seeing around the city that there's a lot of vice happening. And seedy characters, seedy places to visit in the city. He doesn't want his son to succumb to that. He has this strong sense of morality. So, he's going to instill that in his son, of this idea of muscular Christianity. So he challenges his son, right, in this belief of overcoming your weakness, overcoming your fragility and really building up your body and making sure that you're maintaining strong morals as well.

And so Teedie began to build his body. Corinne would later write of often seeing him working out on the piazza overlooking the back garden, “between horizontal bars, widening his chest by regular, monotonous motion.”

Alyssa: He would work out there, keeping a journal of how big his biceps are getting, how big his chest size is getting.

But two years into his efforts, he learned that he wasn’t progressing as quickly as he would have liked.

In 1872, when Teedie was almost 14, he had a bad asthma attack, and his father sent him away—by himself for the first time—to Maine’s Moosehead Lake. It was a life-changing experience.

In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote that, on the stage coach ride to the lake, he met two boys his own age, and rather than making friends, they found him to be an easy victim—and quickly made his life miserable:

“The worst feature was that when I finally tried to fight them I discovered that either one singly could not only handle me with easy contempt, but handle me so as not to hurt me much and yet to prevent my doing any damage whatever in return. … I made up my mind that I must try to learn so that I would not again be put in such a helpless position.”

And so, with his father’s encouragement, Teedie began to learn how to box, with ex-prize fighter John Long as his coach. Much to their surprise, Teedie was tough—he could take hit after hit and keep fighting.

Later that year, the Roosevelts took off on another Grand Tour. There, Mittie and Thee deposited Teedie, Elliott, and Corinne with a family in Dresden, Germany. And though TR was much healthier than he had been, he still never quite conquered his illnesses.

During one attack of the mumps, he wrote to his mother that he resembled “an antiquated woodchuck with his cheeks filled with nuts” and that “your unhappy son had his third attack of asthma, accompanied by a violent headache.” To his father, he said that an asthma attack rendered him unable to speak “without blowing up like an abridged edition of a hippopotamus.”

According to Edmund Morris, Roosevelt’s tutors “openly admired his ability to concentrate on his books and his specimens to the exclusion of physical suffering.” (One of those tutors was the first to predict that he’d be president, by the way.)

The Roosevelts returned to the states in 1873, and the next summer, they headed out to a place that would come to hold a huge significance for Roosevelt: Oyster Bay, New York, where his grandfather and other Roosevelt families vacationed.

Tyler: TR, the president, is 15 years old when he starts coming out to Oyster Bay.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site on Long Island.

Tyler: Wealthy New Yorkers are spending their summers out here. It's a place to escape New York City. For the family that's coming out here, this is the country. We don't think about Long Island as the country any longer, but it was for this family. It was an escape from the heat of New York City, disease in New York City, and it was a place to come out and enjoy themselves.

There might have been another benefit as well: The air may have been cleaner than the air in the city, which would have been better for TR’s asthma.

Tyler: TR senior would have brought him out of the city as frequently as he could have, especially when he was undergoing those really terrible asthma attacks. I think that's probably part of it, for the family to come and spend time outside of New York.

So the family spent a lot of time swimming. Roosevelt loved to row. He would row all over Long Island Sound and the various coves and necks around on the north shore of Long Island. He would explore them. And Roosevelt is as a young boy interested in taxidermy and learning about natural history. The way that you do that in their day is by shooting birds. So Roosevelt is going all over and trying to find different specimens and collecting them for his Roosevelt Museum of Natural History that he kept in his parents' house in New York. Horseback riding, hiking, and just enjoying the outdoors.

Roosevelt loved Oyster Bay so much that he would eventually buy land to build a house on—the house that would come to be named Sagamore Hill. There's a story behind that name, by the way.

Tyler: Sagamore Hill, Sagamore Mohanis was essentially a chief or a sachem. Sachem is the Algonquin word for chief, and then sagamore is a lesser sachem or a lieutenant sachem. And this was apparently a place where they had meetings. Mohanis apparently is the native that signed the land away. Roosevelt decides to name it Sagamore Hill. This is the highest point on Cove Neck, so this is where they would have met.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Before any of that could happen, Roosevelt had to go to college. He entered Harvard in 1876, where he chose to study the natural sciences.

Tyler:
His first couple of years at Harvard, he was the biggest nerd. He was just this person who you'd see and he'd only be in his room, he'd be doing essentially taxidermy. He'd have animals in drawers, and things like that, and you can imagine this didn't make him very popular with people. But then all of a sudden he broke out of it. Eventually he starts joining all these clubs. He becomes friendly with people all over campus.

When he wasn’t in class, or studying, or in his clubs, TR kept up with his boxing and rowing, and he took up wrestling, too. Every spare moment was filled with some kind of activity.

That was doubly true when Roosevelt was experiencing some kind of trauma. In his sophomore year, Thee passed away, and when Roosevelt went back to school, he threw himself into his work, a frenzy of activity, as if to dull his pain.

According to historian Douglas Brinkley, TR wasn’t scared of catching pneumonia and seemed to relish spending hours in the cold: Instead of taking a streetcar, TR would walk three or four miles, and he’d still be ice skating in frigid temperatures long after everyone else went home. A friend from Harvard, Richard Welling, believed that TR was overcompensating for his weakness: "Roosevelt … had neither health nor muscle,” he would later write. “But he had a superabundance of a third quality, vitality, and he seemed to realize that this nervous vitality had been given in order to help him get the other two things."

In between years at Harvard, Roosevelt would spend as much time as possible outdoors, often in Oyster Bay and in Maine. There he lived with backwoodsman Bill Sewall, who would become a lifelong friend. But his initial opinion of Roosevelt wasn’t glowing: He called him a “thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart” and said he was “mighty pindlin’.”

But Roosevelt quickly changed Bill’s mind. One day that summer, they walked 25 miles, and Bill would later recall that “I do not think that I ever remember him being ‘out of sorts.’ He did not feel well sometimes, but he would never admit it.”

On later trips to Maine, Roosevelt would pursue caribou in the snow without tents or blankets for 36 hours. With Sewall and his nephew, Wilmot Dow, he’d summit the 5268-foot-tall Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in the state, making the trip partially in moccasins after he lost one shoe in a stream—after which TR wrote in his journal, “I can endure fatigue and hardship pretty nearly as well as these lumbermen.”

That wasn’t the end of the excursions: He, Sewall, and Dow also took a six-day trip up a river in a dugout canoe through a number of rapids, and then marched 100 miles in pouring rain for three days.

Back at Harvard for his senior year, Roosevelt became engaged to his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and eventually decided on a career in politics.

That year he also had an appointment with a doctor at the university, and the news was not good: The doctor informed him that his heart was dangerously strained. The only way to live a long life, the doctor said, was to live a quiet, sedentary life.

Roosevelt’s response was unequivocal. “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you tell me not to do. If I’ve got to live the sort of life you’ve described, I don’t care how short it is.”

For decades, he kept quiet about the doctor’s advice, and continued to live as if he’d never heard it. The only reason we know about it is that the doctor wrote about the encounter, which is confirmed by Harvard’s records.

Later that year, he married Alice on his birthday. And on their honeymoon, he climbed Pilatus, the Rigi-Grindelwald, and the Jungfrau in the span of 10 days. After that, TR—an amateur—summited the Matterhorn, a mountain so deadly that many skilled mountaineers have died in the attempt. Why’d he do it? He told Sewell that it was to prove to some snobby English climbers he’d met in the lobby of his hotel that “a Yankee could climb just as well as they could.”

Roosevelt never fully conquered his asthma—in fact, his sister Corinne once said that he “suffered from it all his life, though in later years only at long separated intervals.” But his active lifestyle, what he would come to call the strenuous life, built his stamina and helped him manage his illness.

And he never quit being active: When he was governor of New York, he had a wrestling mat installed in the governor’s mansion. (Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that the comptroller put up a fuss about the purchase: “[He] refused to audit a bill I put in for a wrestling-mat, explaining that I could have a billiard-table, billiards being recognized as a proper Gubernatorial amusement, but that a wrestling-mat symbolized something unusual and unheard of and could not be permitted.”) When he got word that President William McKinley was dying, Roosevelt, then vice president, had just summited Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York state.

In the White House, he continued to box, at least until a hard hit took the vision in his left eye … after that, he picked up jiu jitsu. And then he had a tennis court installed, though his playing style was … unconventional.

Tyler: His method of playing tennis was interesting. He would take the handle and propel it into the ball.

According to Michael Cullinane, author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon, TR wasn’t actually all that good at tennis … or sports in general.

Michael: He was terrible at sports. I mean, there's a really funny story about this kid who was playing tennis with the ... He was, TR was then president, he was playing tennis at Sagamore Hill, I think, or maybe it was the White House, I can't recall, but this kid, who's like a teenager, like, "This guy is terrible at tennis and he's the president and I admire him so much but he is, like, the worst tennis player in the world."

Erin: What he lacked in skill, he made up for in energy.

Michael: That's right.

He’d also engage in other physical pursuits—which his daughter Alice called endurance tests—at Sagamore Hill.

Tyler: It was a place to go on these long point-to-point walks, where Roosevelt would ask the children to walk in a perfectly straight direction toward a certain place that was their goal. In that path, no matter what was in your way you had to go either over, through it, or around it. So if it was a thorn bush, you had to go through it. If it was a body of water like a pond, you'd have to wade through it. If it was a wall, you had to climb over it.

This was his living "the strenuous life." Their idea of recreation wasn't what most other people would think, sitting and drinking lemonade on the porch and being taken care of by your servants. For Roosevelt, it was going out and really exhausting yourself. Most people who didn't know him well, I think they didn't understand what they were getting into when they were coming here to Sagamore Hill.

Let's take a quick break, and we’ll be right back.

 

For Roosevelt, working up a sweat wasn’t just a way to stay healthy—it was also a key part of his life philosophy, “of bodily vigor as a method of getting that vigor of soul without which vigor of the body counts for nothing,” as he described it in his autobiography.

He credited his hard work for his successes, writing that, “I never won anything without hard labor and the exercise of my best judgment and careful planning and working long in advance. Having been a rather sickly and awkward boy, I was as a young man at first both nervous and distrustful of my own prowess, I had to train myself painfully and laboriously not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit.”

But again, the fact that he was born into wealth and privilege also had a lot to do with his success.

Roosevelt didn’t just advocate the strenuous life for himself, but for others. At the end of his second term, he ordered that military officers be able to walk 50 miles or ride around 100 miles on horseback in three days, later declaring it “a test which many a healthy middle-aged woman would be able to meet.” When the officers and the press balked at the requirement, he demonstrated how easy it was by doing it himself.

And in his autobiography, TR advised that “A man whose business is sedentary should get some kind of exercise if he wishes to keep himself in as good physical trim as his brethren who do manual labor. When I worked on a ranch, I needed no form of exercise except my work, but when I worked in an office the case was different.”

He also expected his children to live the strenuous life. Especially his children. “I would rather one of them should die than have them grow up weaklings,” he once said.

He was especially tough on his oldest son, Ted, who, like his father, had asthma, and later would suffer from headaches and depression. Eventually he had what TR called “kind of a nervous breakdown.”

Alyssa: The doctors say, "Theodore, you know, he was overstressed or he had a breakdown. And maybe it's because you're pushing too hard.”

TR was contrite, telling the doctor “I’ll never push Ted again.” He said he had been so hard on the boy because Ted could have been “all the things I would like to have been and wasn’t, and it has been a great temptation to push him.”

But Dalton writes that he never could quite let up as he promised. Later, Edith would write to Ted, “As I look back you fared worst, because Father tried to ‘toughen’ you, but happily was too busy to exert the same pressure on the others!”

According to Dalton, the weakling TR had been as a child made him uncomfortable and ashamed: Because “he detested the invalid he had been,” Dalton writes, he looked back on his childhood “with a sense of detachment.” Roosevelt hated weakness.

It’s not hard to trace a line from this back to his father, whom Roosevelt adored and who put so much emphasis on being strong and manly; Roosevelt would always feel inferior to Great Heart. And he never wanted his children to be the kind of weakling he had been.

Both Roosevelt and his father had worried about American society becoming weaker due to “over-civilization.” The idea was that men were so used to modern comforts that they lost touch with some of the things that made them manly. In an 1899 speech, delivered at the Hamilton Club when he was governor of New York, Roosevelt laid out his plan for making his country, and its people, as strong as it could be.

He used the speech, which he would later call “The Strenuous Life,” to argue for U.S. militarism and imperial expansion—which we’ll cover in another episode—and to argue against a life of “ignoble ease.”

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife,” Roosevelt said.

He urged the wealthy fathers at the event to encourage their sons to devote time to non-remunerative work, as his father had done with him, and noted that, “In this life we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past.”

Men should use that freedom to explore different kinds of work, whether it be in politics or exploration. But if a man used that freedom just for enjoyment, “he shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth’s surface … A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world. … As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation.”

He finished by saying that living that life of ease, and seeking peace when war was called for, would doom America to be left behind:

“The 20th century looms before us big with the fate of many nations. If we stand idly by … then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

According to one of Roosevelt’s friends, he had a “policy of forcing the spirit to ignore the weakness of the flesh,” and I think there’s no better example of that than when he was shot in 1912.

Alyssa: John Schrank was the man who fired the bullet.

Schrank would later say that he was against a third-term president, but that wasn’t his only reason for pulling the trigger as TR stood outside the Gilpatrick Hotel.

Alyssa: He was advised by the ghost of William McKinley to avenge McKinley's death, while pointing to a picture of Theodore Roosevelt. So, Schrank followed Roosevelt on the campaign trail from New Orleans to Milwaukee. When Schrank fired at Roosevelt, he was tackled to the ground. Roosevelt didn't bring Schrank up. But the gentlemen around him did. And he actually asked Schrank, "Why did you do it?" And obviously realizing, there's not going to be an answer to that. He's like, okay, fine. Cops, take him away.

Later, Schrank would be examined and deemed insane; he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital and died there in 1943.

After Schrank was hauled away, Roosevelt went on to give his speech.

Alyssa: As a hunter he knew to check yourself, and if you're coughing up blood that probably means a lung is punctured and you're in trouble. But he checked, and he was like, "You know, OK, it doesn't hurt to breathe this way, so I'm going to go on."

According to Morris, the whole right side of Roosevelt’s body had turned black, but the wound was bleeding slowly. So TR slapped a handkerchief over the bullet hole and went out on stage. He didn’t realize until after he pulled out his speech, unfolded it, and began to read that the bullet had gone through it, at which point he joked, “You see, I was going to make quite a long speech.”

And make a long speech he did.

Alyssa: Who gets shot, point blank, and can then go on to carry out about an approximately 90 minute speech? Wow.

But it wasn’t as though Roosevelt was unaffected. He spoke in a voice Morris writes was “no longer husky but weak … a knifelike pain in his ribs forced him to breathe in short gasps. Two or three times, he appeared to totter.” Party aides stood below the footlights in case he fell.

But Roosevelt didn’t fall. Still, by the time he was finished speaking, he had lost a lot of blood, and was taken to Milwaukee’s Emergency Hospital.

Doctors there did an X-ray and found that the bullet had hit his fourth rib on the right side. It had been headed straight for the heart, but had been slowed by Roosevelt’s speech and his eyeglasses case before it hit, and cracked, his rib.

Today, you can see the speech, eyeglasses case, and shirt TR wore on the day he was shot on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Alyssa: I mean, they did the X-ray. They saw that the bullet was lodged into his rib. And they decided not to take it out.

Erin: So he carried that bullet with him for the rest of his life?

Alyssa: Yup. To his death.

Even more incredibly, Roosevelt gave his next speech at Madison Square Garden a mere 16 days later. Ultimately, weakness was no match for TR.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by Erin McCarthy, with additional research by Michael Salgarolo and fact checking by Austin Thompson.

Field recording by Jon Mayer.

Joe Weigand played Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Alyssa Parker-Geisman, Tyler Kuliberda, and Michael Cullinane.

To learn more about this episode check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs

History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.

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