Think of pre-feminist entrepreneurs and very few women come to mind – Mary Kay, maybe. In LIFE OF THE PARTY, journalist Bob Kealing explores the story of sales entrepreneur Brownie Wise, who, in the 1950s, was the brains and charisma behind the meteoric rise of Tupperware. The actual plastic storage system was invented by Earl Tupper, but his good idea gathered dust on store shelves. The concept was sharp as a knife, but Tupper was dull as dishwater – he couldn’t sell it. The product didn’t need retail – it needed something more personal – and what used to be called “a woman’s touch.”
Enter Brownie – a divorced mother, which was practically unheard of then – who joined forces with the inventor and created a marketing concept called the Tupperware Party. This soft-sell home gathering rallied suburban troops who were interested in buying and selling modern food freshness. This person-to-person sales concept was not new, but due to the innovation of the product, it felt revolutionary. The Tupperware line sold in the millions, and kept evolving.
We may laugh about this postwar tradition now, but at the time, it provided entrepreneurial opportunities to housewives and paved the way for women to become self-starters in business.
The fresh story soon spoiled: Brownie was ambitious and driven, and became a business powerhouse when most working women never advanced beyond the title of secretary. In 1954, she became the first woman to grace the cover of BUSINESS WEEK, and that’s no small feat. However, her rise was soon shot down, under mysterious circumstances. Her legacy was wiped away, and she was written out of the company history. She was given a tiny severance upon being fired, while Tupper was granted part of the company fortune.
Now, the story is told, as the Tupperware company is working to restore Brownie’s legacy. Bob’s book has been optioned by Sony Pictures, with Sandra Bullock attached to star (not too shabby).
Here, we ask Bob about Brownie’s business contributions and legacy:
What could entrepreneurs learn from Brownie’s success and failure?
It doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to succeed when you have drive, belief, and a solid plan for success.
From failure, you must consider the historical context of what she was doing, when she was doing it. Nonetheless, Brownie started reading and believing her publicity. She developed an air of infallibility and felt no one could question her. Don’t ever believe you know it all and remember your instincts, at times, can be wrong.
Why was Tupperware initially a bust?
Tupper did not know how to sell his first proprietary product. It needed to be demonstrated. He needed to buy in to that belief. When he did, sales exploded.
In what ways did Brownie Wise and Earl Tupper need each other in order to succeed in business?
Tupper had dogged tenacity and an inventor’s genius. His mind seemed to have a bottomless well of ideas for new Tupperware products (although not all of them -- the dagger comb for instance -- were embraced by the sales side).
Like no one else, Brownie Wise knew how to talk to the wishes and dreams of her dealers. She feminized home selling and set rigid standards for her dealers to follow. For the first time, she brought them recognition outside the kitchen and the bedroom; for some, that recognition was a currency more important than money.
Is charisma a necessary trait in being successful in business?
Yes. You have to know how to make someone believe in what you’re telling, and selling them.
Despite changing times, in what ways is it just as hard today for a woman to succeed in business?
Unlike Brownie’s days, the glass ceiling for women today has been shattered in most work environments. Equal pay for equal work is a very real issue. So is sexism.
Why is Tupperware so woven into the culture, yet Brownie Wise faded into obscurity?
Wise faded in to obscurity as the result of a very real, cynical and mean-spirited effort by Earl Tupper -- and a small number of executives who have long since passed -- to claim all of the credit for the rise of Tupperware and erase Wise from the company’s history.
The product itself proved to be very useful, durable and saved people money. It became part of America’s culture because it was one of a kind at the time and it worked.
What has Tupperware done to restore Brownie’s legacy?
Fortunately -- and finally -- in the last several years, Wise’s legacy has been embraced at company headquarters. The company’s heritage center puts Brownie in the same high regard as Tupper, as it should have all along.
The week this book came out, the company also announced plans to donate $200,000 to build a park on the site of the home Brownie lived in before she was pushed out of the company and told to move out of the house. Yet her grave remains unmarked.
What surprised you the most in researching this book?
What surprised me most was the enormous amount of primary source material available at the Smithsonian’s Museum of North American History, the Osceola County Courthouse, and from people who were early home party pioneers, worked alongside Brownie, and were willing to share their stories.
Did it turn out to be the story you wanted to tell?
Very much so. With this story, we have a better, more balanced sense of Brownie’s remarkable rise, fall, and posthumous return to the public spotlight.
Find out more about Bob Kealing and Life of the Party.
Bob Kealing photo credit: Marc Rice