Pete Gamlen
Pete Gamlen

A Stormy History of Weather Reporting

Pete Gamlen
Pete Gamlen

Over the years we’ve relied on talking sheep, girls in nighties, and glorified car salesmen to deliver us the weather. But behind the gimmicks, forecasters have always mattered. And today, we need them more than ever.

With a wide smile and an even wider tie, John Coleman was your consummate 1970s TV weatherman. Throughout the decade, he could be found cracking jokes and doing his signature little boogie in front of a hand-drawn weather map on WLS-TV in Chicago. His leisure suits, swooping side hair part, and booming voice made him a celebrity—first in the Midwest, and then, starting in 1975, as Good Morning America’s first weather forecaster. Coleman was a real-life Ron Burgundy in many ways, but he was no ditz. His best idea put him on track to become one of the most important weather journalists of all time.

Even while delivering two weather reports a day, Coleman wasn’t satisfied with weather’s place in the news. He didn’t think the short time devoted to weather on TV—typically 15 minutes a day—was enough. So, in his spare moments, he began hatching a plan: a national cable channel devoted to the weather 24 hours a day. It sounded like an impossible dream—or a ridiculous idea. But weather forecasters are used to the impossible. Every day, after all, we ask them to tell us the future. They sift through reams of data, applying the principles of physics, chemistry, and dynamics to predict the behavior of what is essentially layers of gas floating miles over our heads. Layers, mind you, steered by unstable jet streams that move 100 miles an hour or more.

While today’s weather reports are constantly improved by data culled from Doppler radar, precipitation-measuring satellites, and supercomputers crunching millions of weather observations worldwide, the atmosphere is ultimately chaotic and impossible to nail every time. We love to complain when the weather report gets it wrong, but we’d be lost without it. Coleman understood that better than anybody.

He also knew that, throughout the 300-year history of weather journalism, we’ve turned to weather reports for much more than data. We’ve always needed the human touch—trusted interpreters to explain the science, reassure us in the face of uncertainty, and entertain us along the way. Their story, which starts long before Coleman, is plenty entertaining itself.

The first weather report—some scholars consider it the first work of modern journalism—was issued by Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe. On November 24, 1703, Defoe was walking in his London neighborhood when he noticed a change in the air: “The Wind encreased, and with Squalls of Rain and terrible Gusts blew very furiously.” Tiles flew from the rooftops, tree limbs and entire trunks snapped, and chimneys toppled, one of which nearly crushed him.

For two more days, a 300-mile-wide storm—the largest and most destructive ever to hit the British Isles—swept from the southwest, violently flinging bricks and stones down the streets. When Defoe looked at his barometer on the 26th, the mercury was as low as he’d ever seen it. He assumed his kids had messed with the tube.

At the time, Defoe was a poet and pamphleteer. He was also fresh out of prison, convicted of satirizing religious intolerance. He had been fined, locked in an elevated public pillory—the old wooden chokey with holes for head and hands—and jailed for four months. Now bankrupt, he was desperate for paid work. On the morning of the 27th, when the worst of the storm had passed, Defoe looked over the destruction and saw salvation in a new genre.

While neighbors checked on friends and relatives, Defoe took notes, collected eyewitness accounts, and gathered grim facts. Hardly anyone had slept through the storm: “The Distraction and Fury of the Night was visible in the Faces of the People,” he wrote. He ventured to the Thames to witness the 700 or so ships that had been tossed in heaps. He estimated that the storm had drowned 8,000 people at sea, including a fifth of the Queen’s navy. It flattened 300,000 trees, destroyed thousands of homes and 400 windmills, and blew away countless church steeples, turrets, and lead roofs, including the one atop Westminster Abbey.

Of course, humans had been trying to divine the weather for thousands of years, and telling stories about it for even longer. The Babylonians could predict short-term weather by looking to the clouds. In Greece, skeptics rolled their eyes at the prevailing belief that rain was sent by Zeus and based their predictions on the four elements instead. Democritus was so good at predicting the weather he convinced people he could see into the future. Meanwhile, Theophrastus’s On Weather Signs gave us weather proverbs that persist to this day. (“When the sky has a reddish appearance before sunrise ... this usually indicates rain within three days, if not on that very day.”) They all understood that the more you know about the weather of the past, the better you can predict the weather of the future.

Until Defoe came along, most contemporary weather studies were just data from rain gauges, wind vanes, thermometers, and barometers. Few writers recounted action as it happened. Defoe did—and his timing could not have been better. Journalism was brand new. London’s Daily Courant had recently launched as the first English language daily newspaper.

With The Storm, Defoe combined his own eyewitness accounts with harrowing details mailed to him from sources all over England. He wasn’t just delivering facts. He was helping his readers understand the storm, how and why it happened, and what it meant for life itself—weaving atmospheric science with moral philosophy. “I cannot doubt but the Atheist’s hard’ned Soul Trembl’d a little as well as his House, and he felt some Nature asking him some little Questions,” he wrote. “Am I not mistaken? Certainly there is some such thing as a God—What can all this be? What is the Matter in the World?”

Over the next century, new technologies would make the weather report a part of our daily lives. By the mid-1800s, thanks to the telegraph, the first government meteorology chiefs could share weather information at lightning speed, helping citizens and ship captains prepare for disasters. In Victorian England, the idea of “forecasting” was controversial. Some considered it akin to voodoo. But Americans had no such qualms: By 1860, 500 weather stations were telegraphing weather reports to Washington.

When that network crumbled during the Civil War, a frustrated astronomer named Cleveland Abbe established a private system of daily weather bulletins. Culling reports from volunteers across the country, Abbe and a team of telegraph clerks transferred the data onto maps. They added special symbols, showing wind direction, areas of high and low pressure, and marking “R” for rain. With the publication of their first bulletin on September 1, 1869, the daily weather report was born.

Newspapers—like Niles’ Weekly Register, the most popular publication in the nation before The New York Times debuted in 1851—had already been devoting ink to the weather. But Abbe’s weathercast made it a must-read: For the first time, Americans had access to statistics on the days to come. The public saw that predictions could save crops, ships, and lives. Abbe, just 30 at the time, became known as “Old Probabilities” or “Old Prob,” and his work rippled out. Before long, a petition from the Great Lakes region—which suffered 1,914 shipwrecks in 1869 alone—urged Congress to establish a national weather service. Congress approved.

Americans couldn’t get enough of the predictions—or the infographics that came with them. The New York Times began running a weather map in 1934, and the next year, the Associated Press started to transmit a national map to member papers. Early maps were more complex than today’s, showing isotherms and areas of high and low pressure. Over the course of the next century, the maps were dumbed down to carry little besides temperature—and, of course, rain. Americans still loved their weather data, but something was shifting in the air. The daily forecast was about to become a source of not just information but entertainment too.

The same year the Times launched its weather map, Jim Fidler, a student at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, took to the air as “radio’s original weatherman.” He wasn’t the first person to read the weather. In 1900, the U.S. Weather Bureau set up the first radio weather broadcasts at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. But Fidler was different. He was a personality.

When a handful of experimental television stations began broadcasting in the early 1940s, radio forecasters like Fidler were quick to the screen. From the start, it was an oddball enterprise, writes weather journalist and his- torian Robert Henson. A New York City weathercast that debuted in 1941 and lasted seven years starred an animated sheep named Wooly Lamb, who introduced each segment with a song. Sonny Eliot in Detroit turned the weather into a variety show, making forecasts like “The storm is as suspicious as a dermatologist with acne.”

In 1952, the FCC inadvertently encouraged even more cheeseball TV when it opened up competition for local licenses. Most major cities expanded from one station to two or three. Now, vying for audiences, news managers found the weather report was the easiest to liven up. No gimmick was too outlandish. Nashville poet-forecaster Bill Williams read the weather in verse. In New York, a puppet “weather lion” gave one nightly forecast; a sleepy bombshell in a nightie gave a midnight forecast as she tucked herself into bed.

So began the love-hate relationship between real meteorologists and weather forecasters with little science background. The American Meteorological Society tried to rein in the antics. “Many TV ‘weathermen’ make a caricature of what is essentially a serious and scientific occupation,” complained Francis Davis, a physics professor and Philadelphia weathercaster, in a 1955 TV Guide piece titled “Weather Is No Laughing Matter.” The Society wanted everyone to have scientific credentials. A young forecaster named David Letterman never got the memo. Delivering the weather in Indianapolis, Letterman joked about “hailstones the size of canned hams” and, Henson writes, cited statistics for made-up cities.

Beauty also trumped know-how. Raquel Welch got her start doing morning weather in San Diego as a “Sun-Up Weather Girl.” Diane Sawyer landed her first job out of Wellesley in 1967 as “weathergirl” for her hometown TV station in Louisville. Sawyer wasn’t allowed to wear glasses on camera and couldn’t tell whether she was pointing to the West or East Coast on the map.

The profession wasn’t so much a platform for experts as a stepping stone for TV-stardom hopefuls. Wheel of Fortune emcee Pat Sajak, Marg Helgenberger (of CSI fame), and comedian Gilda Radner all got their starts reading the weather. None were degreed meteorologists—nor was the Chicago weatherman John Coleman. But that wasn’t going to stop him from upending the weather report once again.

Though he lacked scientific training, Coleman knew that scientific cred would be as essential as verve. Setting out to build a brand-new weather genre, he wanted only trained meteorologists beamed into American living rooms. He also worked feverishly to develop new technologies to fit local forecasts and weather alerts into national programming. But first he had to find a deep-pocketed partner to bankroll his idea.

Most venture capitalists were skeptical; even those who loved weather reports figured 24 hours’ worth was too big a risk. Finally Coleman found his patron in Frank Batten, a Norfolk, Virginia–based mogul who had made a fortune turning Landmark Communications (primarily a newspaper company) into one of the nation’s largest media conglomerates. Batten had a personal attraction to the subject matter: He’d been gobsmacked by weather since age 6, when he and his uncle rode out a ferocious storm, the Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane of 1933, in the family’s oceanfront cottage on Virginia Beach.

Batten and Landmark invested $32 million, and the Weather Channel launched on May 2, 1982. It was a rocky start. Early technology garbled local forecasts. Critics dismissed the channel as a joke. Newsweek called it a “24-hour-a-day exercise in meteorological overkill.” In its first six months, viewership was too low to qualify for Nielsen ratings. In its first year, the channel lost $10 million. While Coleman was a brilliant weatherman, Batten felt he was a poor CEO; a bid to oust him escalated into an epic legal battle. By 1983, the board and Batten were ready to shut the project down. Coleman eventually settled with the company, handing over his 75,000 shares of stock. The Weather Channel was insolvent at the time, so Coleman, for all his efforts, walked away empty-handed.

Even though Americans didn’t sit around watching the channel—not yet—they liked having it around, and cable operators knew it. Ultimately, the operators saved the channel by agreeing to subscriber fees. Starting in 1984, the fees coincided with the huge growth in cable TV through the mid-1990s. The channel also started selling spectacularly goofy infomercials: a “Heat Wave Alert” for Gatorade, a “Cold Wave Alert” for Quaker Oats, and “Weather and Your Health”—sponsored with no apparent irony by the fake-bacon condiment Bac-Os.

Still, viewers weren’t yet won over. Coleman was gone, but his policies lived on. He had banned live broadcasts from the field because the technology was poor and expensive, so forecasters had to stay inside. The lack of pizzazz became obvious only in hindsight. As video equipment became better and cheaper, the channel’s meteorologists began flipping the formula: They got out into the rain, while viewers stayed dry in their living rooms. The role reversal proved incredibly appealing. Reporting from the field was a “sea change in our understanding of the emotional connection” people have with weather, said then-president and CEO Deborah Wilson.

In 1992, reporting on Hurricane Andrew from his Baton Rouge hotel room with rain gushing in, meteorologist Jim Cantore, who’d spent six years stuck behind a desk, expressed a love for storm drama that infected viewers. “It was awe- some, the wind and the rain,” he remembers.

Viewers were hooked—the Weather Channel streamed into the homes of 50 million Americans during Andrew. Soon viewership swelled to 96 million. By 2008, when the channel was acquired by NBC, it was a $3.5 billion powerhouse built on the same premise Daniel Defoe had discovered 300 years before: The most riveting weather reports come from people who venture outside to see and feel the conditions in real time.

In its March from Defoe’s ruminations to telegraphs to TV to smart phones, today’s weather report has grown not only more convenient but more accurate. Thanks to cutting-edge forecasting models, our four-day rain outook is as precise as the one-day forecast was 30 years ago. Satellites and supercomputers have sharpened predictions for tropical storms; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration nailed Hurricane Sandy’s southern New Jersey landfall five days out.

Lately, digital giants like Verizon have tried to push out the human forecasters at the Weather Channel, arguing that apps make them irrelevant. Just the opposite is true: Massive amounts of digital data make human interpretation more crucial than ever before. We see it in our compulsion to talk about the weather in the spaces between other conversations—often with strangers. We see it in our need for the science to tell us more. We want the forecast to tell us which coat to wear, but also to explain by the hour how the weather will act tomorrow, and what this brutal winter says about next year— and the next 50 years.

Climate change is not only the weather story of our time, but the story of our time. Just as the great storm of 1703 swept in at the dawn of newspapers, so anthropogenic climate change and its impacts are coming into focus during another profound shift, from print and TV to ubiquitous screens. While some of the weathermen of yesterday—Coleman among them—are outspoken climate-change deniers, professional meteorologists generally agree with the scientific consensus that Earth’s warming is unequivocal—and unnatural. “It is clear from extensive scientific evidence,” say the men and women of the American Meteorological Society, “that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half-century is human-induced.”

Today’s revolutionary weather reporters are those who see it as their role to educate audiences on weather and climate science. These include Columbia, South Carolina, WLTX chief meteorologist Jim Gandy, who airs a segment called “Climate Matters,” and Mashable’s Andrew Freedman, who explains major weather stories in the context of the changing climate. This new generation of reporters can explain the science and, equally important, our shared role in the future well-being of the planet.

The history of weather reporting is at turns funny and fraudulent. But underlying the talking sheep and girls in nighties, our need to understand has always been serious. We’ll continue to rely on interpreters like Defoe and Abbe to document the storms and to help us see our place in the larger swirl of the atmosphere. They ask us to consider—and discuss—the same questions Defoe asked more than three centuries ago: “What can all this be? What is the Matter in the World?”

Adapted from Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. Copyright © 2015 by Cynthia Barnett. Published by Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. For a complete source list, see Rain’s Notes section. To purchase, click here.

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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