How Close Can You Get to a Lion?: Dispatches from Kenya's Coolest Safari


There are rules for a walking safari, our guide Roelof tells us softly, sternly. The sun beats down on the stiff yellow grass of the Maasai Mara—the part of the Serengeti that spills across Tanzania’s northern border into Kenya. It’s one of the many Africas people like me don’t know by name but recognize instantly: all brush and blue sky, and occasional lone-silhouetted trees.

It’s also hot. Really hot. The big cats—cheetah, leopard, lion—have all taken cover, giving the grazing animals scattered across the plains time to relax.

Maybe it’s because I don’t know any better; or because the guide giving me instruction cradles a rifle in his hands, a band of brassy bullets cinched around his waist. Or perhaps it’s because my friend James and I have another experienced guide, Zarek, walking behind us. But I’m not concerned about safety. Instead of listening to Roelof’s rules, I let my mind wander: I worry whether I’ve brought enough water. I worry that I haven’t read enough about Kenya before coming here. I think about how much I’ve already seen today: a lioness parading her scruffy cubs past our vehicle; loads of giraffe, gazelle, and warthogs; and a troop of elephants converging at a watering hole. I’m absorbed in the little things: looking at the flowers and bird’s nests and giant mounds built by feisty termites, who, I will later learn, can air condition the habitat and rattle in unison to scare off predators.

But Roelof is whispering at me now, so I try to listen. These are the rules I remember: Walk single-file behind the guide with the gun. Whisper; don’t talk. When you sense danger, snap your fingers. When there is danger, listen for instructions. And no matter what, don’t run. Never run.

Two hours later, when my heart is pounding and we’re scrambling up a cliff, it’s this last rule that will prove the hardest to follow.

Most people who book a safari in Kenya head for the Maasai Mara National Reserve—the roughly 580 square miles of protected park a short drive from where I’m standing. The rangers there work hard to prevent poaching of wildlife, and the Maasai—the local seminomadic people the park is named for—are restricted from grazing their livestock there. The result is untrampled land with excellent wildlife viewing. The problem is the tourists: When there are sightings—say, a cheetah feasting on a kill—it’s not uncommon for 30 oversized vehicles, all packed with snapping cameras, to converge on the scene.

I’m here in Kenya because I’m interested in what’s happening on the outskirts of the Reserve. The area where I’m staying is called Mara Naboisho. It’s one of eight or so conservancies that abut the National Reserve to the north. Seventy percent of Kenya’s wildlife live outside of the parks, so migrations of zebra and wildebeest travel through these areas regularly. Or at least they used to. As the Maasai population grew and families started fencing their land, the wildlife dwindled.

But that began to change in the 2000s, when local Maasai came up with a radical plan: Instead of selling their properties to the wheat farms and development projects that were squeezing them from the north, they decided to work with conservationists to band their properties together, remove the fences, and lease the land to responsible ecotourism partners.

It sounds laughably optimistic, but this “community-based conservation” proved to be a surprising win-win. The Maasai could draw income from the leases; conservationists could work to protect the land; the community at large could continue to use the unfenced property for grazing, and tourism partners could run small-footprint camps (Naboisho has seven camps, with space for no more than 120 tourists, across a 50,000-acre reserve). And because the conservancies have essentially doubled the contiguous protected land outside the National Reserve, the animals roam free across a far wider territory.

Meanwhile, tourists like me who aren’t interested in ultra-luxury, colonial-style camps get a quieter, richer safari experience, plus the added satisfaction of knowing that the project supports the local economy. On my many drives through Naboisho, we see a few Maasai men tending to their cattle, but we rarely find ourselves with more than one other vehicle. While walking isn’t allowed at the National Reserve, here in the conservancy we’re not tethered to the car. On foot, human company is even more spare, so you find places that feel undiscovered, like the valley we’re about to enter.

At the start of the walk, James gives me a tip: Keep an eye on the guide’s rifle. Gun in left hand, nothing to worry about. Gun in right hand, be cautious. If you hear it cock, things are serious.

I laugh. James has been on dozens of safaris and knows the drill. But to me, the gun feels like a formality: Aside from a few birds, we have the valley to ourselves. The only sound I pick up is the soft hum of the whistling thorn acacias.

Roelof and Zarek hear more. Neither is Maasai—Roelof is a blond South African; Zarek is a Kenyan of Punjabi and American descent. But they know this land well and are as enthusiastic about seeing a hyena’s scat (which is completely white from all the bones they consume) as they are to show us the pair of eagles soaring above, teaching a juvenile to hunt. The joy is infectious: I’m an indoor kid, but I’m becoming a convert.

I forget about the gun. My mind is focused on a set of fresh animal tracks in front of me. When Roelof quizzes us on what type of creature it is, I take my best guess: “A big cat?”

“Oh, the biggest!” he responds.

He circles the paw print with a stick and says, “We’ll never see the beast, but you can just imagine...”


Naboisho wasn't the first conservancy in the Mara. But what makes this place so special is how hard the community pulled together to create it. Much of its success, I learn, is thanks to a Maasai man named Dickson Kaelo.

Kaelo is a legend—he’s young and charismatic and has a master’s degree in conservation. He realized early on that to get all of Naboisho’s 502 landowning families to rally around the idea of a conservancy, he’d have to show them the advantages firsthand. He and the Naboisho leaders selected individuals from the community—enterprising women, twentysomething schoolteachers, and other influencers— and toured them through reclaimed lands in Tanzania and Kenya, pointing out how other tribes had used their land.

Dickson also worked with potential tourism partners to spread out job opportunities, so it wasn’t just the Maasai lease holders who were benefiting from the money coming in, but also the people living on the conservancy’s fringes. And, perhaps most importantly, he ensured that the small board that makes all the big decisions on behalf of Naboisho will always be half Maasai.

The campaign took four years, but when the community finally had its chance to sign over the parcels for leasing, more than 400 families gathered under a big tree to make it official. Before long, another 100 families would join them. Now, Naboisho is being held up as a case study in the conservancy world. Arguably even more stunning than this show of unity is the speed with which the wildlife has come back. And that includes the lions.

Because we're talking about lions, I have a lot of questions. I learn that the cats are always crafting new ways to hunt. When wildebeest are scarce, lions in the Mara will work in teams to take down a hippo. In Namibia, where lions prowl the beaches of the Skeleton Coast, they’ll feast on seals and cormorants and even beached whales. In Botswana, they take advantage of the airports, chasing giraffes onto the tarmac so they lose footing and slip. But here in the conservancy, where lions have been coexisting with the Maasai, the creatures mostly keep their distance from people.

Of course, that hasn’t always been the case. A day later, when another guide, Senchura, takes us to meet his father, Sakaiwua Kaleku, I’m still obsessed with the topic. After the formalities—we’ve presented him with a bright red checkered cloth and asked after his wives (three are nearby, tending the dozen or so kids)—he tells us how “the lions used to be everywhere.”

I’ve been waiting to hear about the moran—the period when Maasai boys on the brink of manhood would fight lions and steal cattle to prove their worth to the village. Sakaiwua talks about how bonding his experience was: He and the others saw their role as “the eyes of the community,” constantly keeping watch for the tribe. He said that two of his friends were badly hurt by a lion and that once, during a cattle raid, he had to bandage a bleeding friend with his own clothes, then carry him home— running naked through the night. Sakaiwua was one of the last generations to enter the moran; he’ll be one of the last generations to have multiple wives. He’s advising his own sons to take one wife, maybe two.

When I ask how things have changed, his response is positive. He’s thrilled that the land has been rejuvenated and that it’s being preserved for grazing. The Maasai connection to their cattle is deep. When I talk to one of the Naboisho conservancy board members, Gerard Beaton, he tells me about a sociologist who created a Monopoly-style game to understand Maasai culture: No matter how the points in the game were weighted, or how the rules changed, the Maasai players attempted to hoard all the game’s cattle.

Sakaiwua welcomes the tourists because he knows Naboisho is being saved for future generations. His kids will be able to live here if they want instead of taking jobs in Nairobi. But what makes him proudest is that all of his children are going to school. Because Senchura has graduated from the guiding school at the conservancy and is employed at one of the camps, he’s able to fund an education for his brothers and sisters.

As we continue our walk, Roelof and Zarek tell me that this year’s tourism numbers are down. They blame the hysteria over ebola, even though the virus was contained in western Africa, thousands of miles away. One family told Roelof their travel doctor refused to give them shots, explaining that they could get the same experience at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

But what I see is nothing like Disney World. The four of us have this valley to ourselves, and it all feels so still. I try to absorb everything. I feel the silk of a wolf spider’s web. I crush wild jasmine and take in the scent. I learn that certain types of acacia thorns are strong enough to puncture a car tire.

And then, as we’re walking down a slope, the snapping starts. Zarek is quickly clicking his fingers to get Roelof’s attention. He’s just seen a dik-dik dart across the opposing hill, and when he trains his eye on what it’s running from, he spots a young male lion, about 30 meters away from us.

It sees us. We stand motionless, and I smile at our luck. The lion, muscular but still growing into his frame, looks unsure of what to do. Then he moves up the hill and disappears into the brush.

Just then a second lion emerges, this one bigger, with a full mane. He pauses, staring right at us. Then he starts walking our way, and as he does, a third lion, hidden in the bush, roars. I don’t remember everything that happens next, but I know the gun shifted hands. I know Roelof pushed me and that he whispered forcefully, “Go, go.”

We move quickly. Zarek scissors a path, I follow close behind—laughing but also a little panicked. I start wondering if I’m breathing too quickly or too loud. The thorny branches that I’d carefully avoided before are now clawing at my pant legs, but I’m thinking about speed, not comfort. Still, this is fun.

When we finally stop, Roelof and Zarek are serious, but unshaken. They say that the lions look like they’ve just eaten. The guides could also tell the animals had wandered over from the National Reserve—they weren’t accustomed to seeing people on foot. The second lion—the one that was pursuing us—never made it close enough to be a problem; the concern now is about the first lion. He’s young and skittish, unpredictable. And he’s still lurking somewhere up the hill, in the direction of our camp.

As we trudge out of the valley, Roelof in front with the gun in his right hand, I’m fully on edge: Every sound is startling; every shrub feels suspicious. We walk purposefully as Roelof and Zarek chart a path unlikely for a lion to take, but my heart is racing.

It’s only when we finally reach the valley’s lip and can see the plain before us that my anxiety lets up. Later that night, nerves further calmed by gin and tonic, I ask Roelof how close he thought the lion was.

“About 20 meters,” he says. “So, when do you shoot?”

“10 meters,” he says. “And you only really get one shot.”

A few hours ago, that knowledge would have terrified me. But here, in the glow of the campfire, it feels comfortably distant. It’s already a story I can imagine telling friends over drinks after I get home.

Safari-goers like me will always evangelize their experiences. But will enough people visit the conservancies to sustain this project? In Maa, a Maasai language, naboisho means “coming together.” Along with the Maasai and the wildlife and the conservationists, Naboisho needs a steady stream of tourists to survive. That stream has slowed in the past few years, and if it doesn’t improve, camps will close and local jobs for Maasai men and women will disappear. The wildlife may disappear, too.

So the brainstorming on how to diversify the income has begun. There’s talk of a “beef scheme” to brand and sell Maasai beef to supplement the economy. There are questions about whether some farming on this land would affect the wildlife.

But even as Naboisho’s partners worry, they continue to dream big: They’ve already identified another chunk of leasable properties that would complete the circle for a secondary wildebeest migration. As they describe the scene—the massive herds, this restored land, an even greater Maasai community that will benefit—I sense the urgency. I so want it to be possible. And if just a few more people can come here and experience this place the way I have, maybe it will.

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

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.

John Ueland
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.


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.


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.


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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