Earl Tupper was an idea man. He had an idea for a no-drip ice cream cone, an automatic tie-knotter, and a fish-powered boat. When none of these took off, he became a tree surgeon. When that failed, he took a job at Dow Chemical working with plastics. That’s when he had another idea: He got a block of raw polyethylene, bought a molding machine, and—inspired by paint cans—came up with his Wonder Bowl. It had a lid that could be sealed entirely shut, airtight, watertight.
Brownie Wise was a consummate saleswoman, and she found her niche, in the mid–1940s, working for Stanley Home Products, selling brushes, vacuums, and kitchenware in the homes of housewives. When Wise noticed Tupperware at a department store, she started her own business selling it with the home-party model.
This was 1949. During World War II, many American women had both run their homes and worked outside the home. But with the war’s end, a new ethos looked to put them in their place—back at home—and subordinate to their husbands. Wise’s insight was to work both sides of this cultural clash. She emphasized women’s ability to determine their future—both as salesladies who could earn their own money, and as beneficiaries of a sophisticated product that saved time and money. All the while, she helped sell the image of the industrious housewife entrenched in the kitchen.
Earl Tupper had created a great product that he did not know how to sell. Brownie Wise created a way to sell that product, which was itself an invention: the Tupperware party. Their partnership was the essence of complementarity: Both were wildly driven and ambitious; one knew how to make new things that were ahead of their time, while the other knew how to use the spirit of the times to sell things. One was the classic dreamer; the other was the classic doer.
They each had a different story about how they met. Wise said she called headquarters and insisted on talking to Tupper directly about insufficient inventory. Tupper said he noticed strong sales in the Detroit area and asked who was responsible. When they came together—she persuaded him to pull his products from stores and sell them exclusively through home parties—they co-created Tupperware as a national brand and a cultural phenomenon.
And then the adventure began. Wise went to Florida, where, on the swamps from which Disney World would rise, she built a theme park of her own, a fantasyland for her annual “Jubilee,” a combined sales conference and pep rally. She buried prizes in the fields. She baptized a machine-dug pond with polyethylene beads. She built a wishing well for ladies to drop in their hopes and dreams sealed inside two-inch Tupperware bowls.
In the early 1950s, Tupperware’s PR men suggested they make Brownie Wise the face of the company—here was a powerful female executive who could represent a product to women buyers. Tupper resisted, then acceded; and it led to a boom. Wise was the first woman on the cover of Business Week. “Brownie Wise became Tupperware and Tupperware became Brownie Wise,” said Charles McBurney, the company’s PR director. “They were almost synonymous.”
This led to two kinds of trouble. First, Tupper resented her high profile. All the attention to her charisma and her methods undersold, he thought, the real drama of the company: his magic products. Second, Wise began, as one associate said, to believe her press releases. She started tussling with Tupper more, taking more prerogatives. In 1958, Tupper fired her. Though she had built Tupperware and was the face of the company, she was also just a salaried employee. She didn’t even have a contract, let alone an equity claim. Tupper at first refused her a severance. He finally conceded to the entreaties of her former colleagues to give her a year’s salary.
Brownie Wise tried a number of second acts, with no real success, and lived the rest of her life in Kissimmee, Florida. Months after he fired the woman who made his company, Earl Tupper sold it for $16 million—about $125 million in today’s dollars. He got divorced and bought a private, 14,000-acre island, and that’s where he went to live.